I never knew Dom.
As was and is the case for millions of others, I only knew of him.
Tragically, now he is gone. Learning the news is a heavy gut punch.
My mind roams back to June 23, 2018. A soccer practice in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand finishes. The players, aged 11 to 16 and members of the Wild Boars team, are in high spirits. Smiling, laughing, pedaling away from the pitch on their bicycles, they plan to celebrate the birthday of a mate by exploring the famous Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
What follows is an epic eighteen-day saga, one which grips and captivates the entire world in equal measure.
The cave itself sits underneath a mountain range. Its tunnels run for some 10km below ground, a winding series of fiendishly narrow passages and deep recesses. A sign, posted at the entrance, advises against entry during the July to November rainy season.
The boys, along with a young assistant coach, are undeterred. They park their bikes, dump their kit bags, venture inside, ignoring a muddy trail of water already seeping along the pathway.
Disaster strikes, and quickly. Monsoonal rains flood the system, blocking a way out. Rapidly rising water levels and strong currents force the boys deeper and deeper into the very bowels of the cave. Isolated in the dark, they finally find refuge on a narrow shelf of rock. They are trapped, now some 4km from their starting point.
What follows is a stunning, staggering rescue operation. Indeed, the recovery effort eventually involves over 10,000 people from all around the globe. Highly trained cave divers and medical personnel, various government agents, police officers, soldiers, journalists, and countless volunteers all play significant roles.
The heavy rain continues, pounding down unabated for three consecutive days. Time ticks by, any attempts at diving blunted by the murky waters, poor visibility, and treacherous undertows.
Multiple other rescue options are considered in the search. Yet, drones, robots, drilling, alternate shaft openings and sniffer dogs fail to provide information on the whereabouts of the team huddled deep underground.
Finally, a breakthrough of sorts. A week of pumping water from the cave system and a break from the torrential downpours allow two British divers access through the dark and hazardous channels. On July 2, a full eight days after the young boys and their coach go missing, the pair come across the group. Amazingly, though frail, all are alive, safe, and healthy enough. More remarkably, after more than a week without any real food or clean water, shivering in cold, dark, and slimy conditions, despite oxygen levels dropping, all appear mentally strong.
The extraction race continues. While the team members are supplied with vitamin and mineral rich food as well as emergency blankets, speed is of the essence. Any respite from the next monsoon, which will effectively flood the cave for months, will be just a matter of days. A week at the most.
In the end, after considering multiple possible solutions, a daring plan is drawn up. The rescue of choice is extremely risky, but the multiple dangers, especially the threat of more rain and of the Wild Boar team members dying of hypothermia or hypoxia, force a decision.
On July 8, thirteen recognized international diving experts, one specializing in anesthesia, supported by five Thai Navy Seals, enter the cave to retrieve the boys. Another hundred divers wait along the planned escape route to assist as required, performing medical checks, administering more drugs, and resupplying air tanks.
One by one, each of the boys is dressed up in a wetsuit, harness, and face mask. Fully sedated in order to prevent panic, tethered to a diver, they are then guided and maneuvered through passageways at times as narrow as 40 x 70 centimetres.
Finally, having reached a staging base at Chamber 3, the boys are moved onto stretchers. Carried, slid and zip lined, they are transported back to the mouth of the cave. To the hospital and to their families. To safety.
Eventually, on July 10, as more violent weather closes in, the last four boys and their coach are brought out successfully. With water levels once again rising dramatically, the remaining rescue personnel also just manage to extricate themselves.
I marveled then, and I marvel still. At the rescue team of experts and volunteers. At the local community support. Heroes all. As is the case with every successful group enterprise, I admire the teamwork, everyone committed as needed to the multiple tasks at hand. No job too big or too small.
I salute doggedness, determination, dedication. Acknowledge skills and planning, recognize audacity and ingenuity. Applaud and commend bravery under the most extreme pressure, knowing that the slightest miscue or miscalculation will almost certainly lead to multiple deaths.
Furthermore, no doubt the team trapped deep in the cave draws on its own sporting experiences to survive. To fight adversity. To bat away feelings of hopelessness and despair, to stick together come what may, to not panic and to maintain discipline through the gnawing and growing uncertainty of what might lie ahead.
A wise man once said that “without fear, one cannot have courage.” The coach and the young boys would have certainly been afraid. Mightily afraid. Yet, thanks to belief, nerve, and fortitude, they rally to beat seemingly impossible odds.
Certainly, the twelve boys owe much to the young coach for his calm and loving leadership throughout the ordeal.
And likewise to Duangphet Phromthep, the aforementioned Dom. Their captain and most talented player. He gains world-wide fame, setting a steady example though under considerable duress, comforting the younger boys, taking the lead in writing the first messages from deep in the cave to the outside world.
Happily, life looks even rosier when, in 2022 at the age of 17, Dom gains a soccer scholarship to Brooke House College in Leicestershire, England. He is following a life dream.
And so, it just does not seem possible that twelve days ago he is pronounced dead at Kettering General Hospital. A passing judged not to be suspicious, rather due to a freak accident.
While the exact circumstances of the death remain to be released, I ponder the twisted hands of fate. Of a boy, still not yet a man, a bright future in front him, already having somehow survived a deeply harrowing cave rescue experience. Having once cheated death, yet now gone to soon.