When he started exploring cave systems in Utah and Nevada, crawling through mud and dirt and trying to sneak into tight spaces to see where they led, Josh Morris felt like a little kid searching for secret treasure.
Twenty years later, the stakes were higher. Now, he was working with rescue crews against time and all odds to find a way into the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand, where 12 young soccer players and their coach had been trapped for days in the dark and the cold.
It had been 10 days since monsoon rains had flooded the passageway the Wild Boars team had walked into so effortlessly, making it impassable to all but the most skilled divers. Morris explored a hole on the south side of the cavern alongside the U.S. Air Force rescue team that they saw as one of their best leads for finding the boys.
“I got in that cave and I spent about 20 or 30 minutes in there, and I just … you can never say for sure, but I said to them, ‘I don’t think this ever had a chance of going anywhere,’” he said. “Just by reading the geology and understanding what it took to get into this hole, and there’s no air blowing out of it. There was just no indicator that it would go anywhere.”
Another dead end. And this one had occupied the time and energy of at least 20 people every day for three days.
“To me, I was thinking, ‘That’s a big wasted effort,’” Morris said. “And I kind of realized at that moment that the cavers were not necessarily tracking with the rescue workers.”
That’s when Morris, a Salt Lake City native, became immersed in the high-stakes rescue that commanded international attention for 18 days. He worked first as one of the few volunteers with caving experience and then, once rescuers realized that finding a cave entrance was unlikely, played a central role in ensuring smooth communication among the British, Australian and United States rescue teams and the Thai government.
“My expertise and my strength in Thailand is I have been there 19 years — I know the culture very well; I speak, read and write the language,” he said. “I’m also a caver, so I can talk about those things, and I do management training, executive coaching and team building and things. So that’s kind of my strength is working with people and getting people to work together.”
Morris first came to Thailand in 1999 to teach English as a student from Princeton University. A journey that started as a year or two abroad never ended after he married Khaetthaleeya Morris, a Thai native, and grew a successful rock-climbing company and community called Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures. So he stayed.
‘Emotions get in the way’
When the boys, who ranged from age 11 to 16, wandered into the cave, it was June 23 — not yet the Thai rainy season, which begins in July. Their abandoned bikes and belongings scattered at the mouth of the cave served as an answer to the question of why so many sons had never showed up for their dinners.
Morris’ brother-in-law, Noppadol Uppakham, is a highly trained caver and high-angle rescuer and was one of the first to respond to the scene. Though Morris kept an eye on the situation from his home around 3½ hours away and spoke with Uppakham daily, he kept telling himself ‘not yet.’
“My sense of the whole thing from the beginning was the military are up there, there’s thousands of rescue workers — I don’t need to add more complication by going myself, you know?" he said. “There’s enough manpower up there to do what needs to be done.”
The number of volunteers eventually grew to more than 9,000, according to The Washington Post.
Still, Morris tried to be helpful from afar, conducting interviews with CNN and BBC as an experienced caver with a deep knowledge of Thai culture, and helping his brother-in-law coordinate with other cavers.
But he could feel Uppakham growing frustrated with the lack of coordination among various groups, which sometimes led them to waste time on holes another team had already finished exploring. Uppakham thought Morris might be able to help bridge the communication gap, so he came.
Over the next few days, Morris explored a number of dead ends that had seemed to the rescuers, who were less experienced with caving, like solid leads.
“I can tell why they thought it was going to go [through],” he said of one such lead. “Because they wanted it to go, one. That’s always the biggest problem is your emotions get in the way. And, two, it looked like it could go. But there were none of the other things” like airflow — signs that were obvious to more experienced cavers.
Before the search became a rescue, Morris and others worried the divers “were just going to find bodies.” But even after the team was located alive, the list of concerns kept swelling: declining oxygen levels, lack of food, risk of illness and infection and a growing urgency to rescue the boys while the water level was still low enough to do so.
At that point, rescuers still thought they had options for rescuing the boys. Maybe they could walk them out at the end of the rainy season in October, or drill into the cave to find them, or they would discover an alternate entrance.
But soon, the rescue teams realized there would be no accessing the main cavern from the outside, that leaving the boys in the dark for months was more of a death sentence than a legitimate option and that the chance of creating a cave-in within the complex rock system made drilling almost equally risky.
The only option left was to dive them out. The boys had no diving experience.
But all the teams agreed: “There are two options and they both suck,” Morris said. “One is you leave everyone in the cave and they die, everybody dies. Or, two, you bring some people out … and some might live. And nobody knew what that ‘some’ meant. It could be nobody lives and it could be 13 live.”
‘Every dive is just as risky as the first’
Once the decision was made to dive the boys out, Morris’ role shifted. His job now was “to make sure that what [the rescue teams] were thinking about what is possible and what needed to happen was being communicated properly and through the right channel and in a culturally appropriate way,” he said.
“That was the big eye-opening thing for me in this is you have lots of really competent translators who were up there — but translators translate the words,” he said. “They can be [good at nuance] if they know the subject, but it’s really hard to find a translator who knows caving. So I think I was useful in that sense.”
Most days, Morris was up at 6 a.m. and in bed around 1 a.m. the next day, all the while under intense pressure to communicate complex issues clearly and correctly on the borderline between two distinct cultures and languages.
Vernon Unsworth, a British cave diver who has spent years mapping the Tham Luang cave system, said Morris and his team from Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures were an “integral part” of the rescue.
“He was an immense help with coordinating meetings and progressing relationships with the international teams British, American, Australian, European, Chinese and more importantly with the Thai Navy SEALs,” Unsworth said in a message to The Salt Lake Tribune. “What was probably of more importance was his negotiating skills with high ranking government officials and also colonels and generals representing the navy in the military.”
Morris worked closely with the area’s lieutenant governor, Passakorn Bunyalak, throughout the three-day rescue operation, where rescuers hoisted the boys out of the main cavern and through a complex network of ropes and air tanks, part of the way in stretchers, over jagged rock and muddy passageways and in dark waters where they could see less than six inches in front of their faces.
Four boys came out — alive — the first day. And the next day there were four more. But even after two successful operations, Morris said tensions remained high until the last day of the rescue — particularly after the death of Samnan Kunam, a former Thai navy diver.
“Every dive is just as risky as the first,” Morris said.
Miraculously, the last day was as successful as the two preceding it. And when the last boy was out, and the Navy SEALs who had kept vigil with them in the cave emerged hours later, everyone felt a surge of relief amid a sense of disbelief.
“The last thing that just kind of totally destroyed me in a good way was the parents came up to the headquarters area to ask if they could say thank you to the cave divers,” Morris said.” So I went out with the cave divers and translated this thank you between them…. When I saw those parents, I had a really hard time translating without crying.”
Though Morris is still decompressing from the experience, he also recognized that the work spurred by the boys’ entrapment isn’t yet finished.
He hopes to work with the Thai government to establish systems that can keep the community safe while preserving access to the country’s vast landscape of underground treasure hunts.
“Our role now, because we’re cavers and because we have an operation in Thailand and because we are now connected with the government, is maybe we can work with the government to help design a system that keeps people safe and teaches some education about how to adventure safely,” he said. “And hopefully it doesn’t become a knee jerk where it gets shut down.”