Kevin Stricklin watched anxiously as efforts to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand unfolded.
“It’s a great story so far. You just hope it continues,” said the head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s division of Coal Mine Safety and Health in Washington, D.C.
A similar, gut-wrenching dilemma faced Stricklin 16 years ago when he was a member of the team tasked with rescuing miners trapped in a flooded Somerset County coal mine. Like the Quecreek Mine where nine men were 240 feet underground for 77 hours, the flooded cave complex in Thailand posed daunting challenges for would-be rescuers.
“It did bring back a lot of memories of Quecreek,” Stricklin said.
In 2002, Stricklin’s team of mine safety experts quickly came up with a plan to pump heated compressed air into a small bore hole they drilled to get oxygen to the miners, who they shivered in the darkness, awaiting rescue after a torrent of water left them trapped in a cold, black hole.
An international team of experts in Thailand faced a similar dilemma when the boys, aged 11-16, were found alive on July 2, six miles back in a flooded cave. They’d been missing for 10 days.
During the initial search for the boys, Stricklin and other Mine Safety and Health Administration staff huddled thousands of miles away, wondering if they could help.
“We actually talked about offering our services to go out and help anyway we could. We talked about putting a seismic sensor to see where they might be and to put a bore into it (to) bring fresh air to the boys,” Stricklin said.
Although rescuers in Thailand found the boys and got oxygen to them on their own, it would be several days before they settled on a rescue plan.
In 2002, the Quecreek miners were pulled one by one from their dark, watery refuge in a rescue capsule sent down through a large bore hole drilled specifically for that purpose.
In Thailand, the boys were trapped more than 10 times as far beneath the surface as the Quecreek miners. Drilling wasn’t considered an option. Nor, was it feasible to wait for the water to go down as monsoon rains grew nearer.
Instead, after getting food and oxygen to the boys, cave rescue divers began a slow, risky underwater rescue. As of Monday, eight boys had been brought to the surface.
As millions checked news sites and waited for word of the others, Stricklin’s thoughts were with the teams in Thailand. He and his colleagues have participated in scores of mine rescue and recovery efforts over the years. While he knows the euphoria that comes with success, he also knows the agony of being on hand when rescue gives way to recovery.
“You hold your breath, your stomach tightens and you just hope for as good an outcome as we had at Quecreek,” Stricklin said.