Steve Wilson had seen his three friends put on a T-shirt, mask and fins. Then they disappeared into the water, inside a cave in rural Arkansas.
Then came his turn, and he was nervous. None of them had diving experience, but they had received a five-minute accelerated course that afternoon in 1965 and said it was the only way to escape from the cave, which had flooded during a storm. So Wilson, who by then was 20, plunged by a Navy diver who was in front of him and another behind, groping along a rope in the deep water.
” I was on the verge of panic all the time,” he told The Washington Post as he confessed that the 30-minute journey seemed to take hours. He could barely see the diver in front of him and was worried about breathing normally underwater. “I did not want to spoil the plan or hurt myself, nor cause more problems,” he said.
Now, more than five decades later, Wilson says he can sympathize with the young footballers and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand for days.
“I do not think they can exaggerate the danger that those guys have been in,” said Wilson, who is now 74 years old. He added that there is no doubt that the boys have gone through moments of great “anguish”.
Wilson, a retired director of the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission, who lives in Norfork, Arkansas, looked back to recount his own experience when he was trapped in April 1965.
He commented that he and three friends, all of them experienced cave explorers, undertook ” a weekend adventure”, from the Rowland cave to the Blanchard Springs Caverns.
The man, who at that time was studying the career of administration of Natural Parks at the Technological University of Arkansas, left with the other cavers, who were between 19 and 42 years old. They left with sandwiches, water and other supplies, including lights and an inflatable raft. They began in Rowland, a tourist enclave, and followed the current to the caverns, which had not yet been developed by the United States Forest Service.
They waded through the water, sometimes up to the ankle, sometimes up to the waist. But the worst of all is that they did not realize that it was pouring rain outside.
On Saturday they ran into a pile of rocks that prevented them from continuing the road, so they decided to turn around.
By Sunday they had reached the mouth of the cave where they had entered, but the water was so high that they could not get out. They also did not have the right equipment to do it. Then the men, frozen, soaked and exhausted, set up a tent, a rough structure built with the rubber raft and some ponchos they had packed to keep dry. His plan was to put candles, dry, warm and wait for the water to recede.
But they had no idea how long it would take and if they could hold on.
The men still had water to drink, but they had very little food left. They assumed that it could be days, maybe weeks. Their leader was diabetic, so the medication was also a concern in the group. In addition, he commented, the cave was humid and cold-about 13 degrees Celsius inside-so they feared getting sick. However, the crew, young and adventurous, did not consider death.
The four began a rotation: three of them would sleep and one would stay awake and watch the water level to determine if it was starting to recede.
“It was just a matter of waiting,” Wilson said.
Both he and his companions speculated ” with what was happening outside and if someone was looking for us “.
Wilson indicated that another friend and veteran cave explorer who could not accompany them that weekend knew where they had gone and knew that the cave would probably be flooded by the rain. He was the one who reported the situation to the authorities. The local volunteers tried to rescue them, and then it was the divers from the US Navy and the National Speleological Society who came to help, according to press reports of the time.
Back home in Morrilton, Arkansas, a small town about 170 miles southwest of the caves, Wilson’s wife, Jo, knew her husband was trapped.
The newlyweds could not pay the telephone costs, so the neighbour was the one who received the news. Jo, a 21-year-old school teacher, ran to the telephone company to use a public telephone to call and find out more details about her husband. Then he made a long trip to the caves “with a lot of things going through his head”.
When he got there, he met Wilson’s parents, who were surrounded by other families, friends and journalists. All waiting for the men to leave.
An April 5 article by United Press International explained the situation of the group whose life was in danger: ” Members of the Navy Deep Sea Diving School and the National Rescue Team of the Capitol, both from Washington, arrived early today at the remote cave from Ozark Mountain and immediately began an exploration. ” The note said that the team included “two experienced cave explorers, one of them Hugh Shell who has diabetes.” Shell, 42, a Batesville (Arkansas) accountant, had a three-day supply of medicine. University students were identified as Mike Hill, 19, a student at Arkansas College and Steve Wilson, from Arkansas University of Technology at Russellville. ”
Wilson said he was on duty that Monday when he heard a loud noise, which turned out to be a diver who was entering the cave. He commented that the diver handed him a rope and told him to secure it. The men, with the help of the divers, would use it to guide them to the exit of the cave.
“I was relieved, I woke up my friends and told them what was going on, that it looked like the divers were going to rescue us, everyone was happy to know that we were finally going out .”
Wilson said that it took an hour to rescue each person. In each of the rescues, one diver was in front and another behind. He was the last to be rescued since he was the smallest and would not need his friends to get out.
When he arrived on the ground, he said, his wife and parents ran towards him expressing how happy they were that he could have left. It was a moment of happiness that was short-lived: the diver who had been swimming behind Wilson collapsed on the shore and died. The coroner then determined that the diver, identified as Lyle E. Thomas, 39, suffered a heart attack.
The former Arkansas Gazette described Thomas as an ” expert diver who was diving 14 of the 22 years he had been in the Navy .”
“I was totally shocked, and the fact that someone ended up giving his life to save ours was a horrible feeling, ” Wilson said as he remembered the tragedy.
Speaking about the incident in Thailand, Wilson said he believes that rescuers have done a “spectacular” job, saving the lives of children and adolescents who are not even swimmers and much fewer divers.