I’ve been involved in many cave rescues here and know how tricky the Thailand operation must have been. But it’s not really a dangerous sport... my first date with Claire was down a cave
Ten days after going missing, 12 young football players and their coach were found almost two miles deep into the northern Thailand cave system. As hope faded of getting them out alive, an intricate rescue plan involving divers, engineers, doctors and the military was put into place. Watching with special interest was experienced caver Stephen Macnamara from Moira, who has been involved in rescues here. He talks to Leona O'Neill about the mission and why he loves the sport so much.
Co Down caver Stephen Macnamara has seen his fair share of daring rescues in the underground world beneath Northern Ireland. As a member of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation (ICRO) he has hauled people up caverns with ropes and eased them out of constricted spaces which would give even the bravest of us extreme claustrophobia.
So for the 41-year-old, who works as a quality support specialist at a pharmaceutical company, the rescue of 12 young boys and their football coach in Thailand earlier this month being played out from afar without being able to help was difficult to watch.
"I was glued to the television when the Thailand rescue was happening. I didn't have a direct involvement in it because it was a very specialist situation, but I knew cavers who were there and they said it was a very challenging environment and rescue. It was very worrying," he says.
"I think they managed to get the right people to the scene in a quick manner, which meant that it had a successful outcome. It was a huge feat to be able to do that successfully and I think a lot of people wouldn't realise the difficulties in actually doing that. It was a huge undertaking and it is a miracle that they got them all out safely."
Like the world looking on, Stephen had heartfelt sympathy for the boys and their plight as fears grew that the coming floods would seal their fate.
"The boys weren't experienced cavers. They were unlucky to have gone in at that time and be hit by severe rain immediately," he says.
"It left them very far from the entrance with a flooded section of passage which was getting higher and higher and the distance between them and the dry exit was becoming more and more because of the rising water. It was a very difficult situation.
Diving in those situations is very physically demanding.
"I would have liked to have been involved. At the start we were all wondering if they needed help. If they had required it I think any of us in the caving community would have been prepared to take a flight over and help out in a heartbeat. But what they needed wasn't really person power, but specialised cavers.
"I did at times feel a bit paralysed because I don't have that specialised training on diving. There are very few people who do.
"Nine divers went across from the UK and Ireland who have that specialised experience and it was really them along with the Thai Navy who took control of the situation and decided on the best way to get the boys out.
"One of our ICRO guys, Jim Warny, went over and was part of the rescue. I knew a couple of the English cavers who went over also. They all found it a very challenging experience. It is very physically and mentally demanding, even a normal dive.
"They do diving for exploration purposes on their own so that, even without the rescue element, needs a particular, focused and calm mindset. When it's in a rescue scenario it becomes much more stressful."
The death of experienced former Thai navy diver Saman Gunan, who was among the team trying to transport oxygen tanks into the boys' cave, demonstrated the dangers of the rescue effort.
Bringing each boy out to safety took several hours of intricately planned steps. They were fitted with full-face breathing masks and, for the underwater sections, which it is believed comprised 40% of the journey, they were strapped to a diver.
"To think that they were responsible for one boy, having to take him out," Stephen says, recognising the responsibility placed on each diver.
"You have to look after your stuff and that little boy in tight passages and in very poor visibility, almost no visibility, working underwater in the dark. It is a huge mental and physical undertaking. Despite the drama in Thailand, Stephen insists that caving is "a very safe sport and hobby".
"The incident in Thailand was very severe. You would be very unlucky to have a scenario like that on your hands," he explains.
"Caving is not a dangerous past-time. I suppose there is an element of danger with every sport or activity, but if you have the right equipment and right training it is no more dangerous that any other sport.
"Obviously, if there are things that you haven't prepared for it could be dangerous. It can be cold, dark and wet and you have to be prepared for those things and what to expect."
And of course good safety gear is essential.
"The standard equipment is a helmet and a light. In fact, multiple sources of light in case one fails," Stephen says.
"You'll have a number of fleece layers and a tough-wearing oversuit to protect you from the sharp rocks and the mud and the water. And sometimes you wear a wetsuit and boots. For some caves you'll have a rope and harness and various devices for getting down and up rope. That requires specialist training. A few caving clubs around Ireland do provide that training."
That is not to say incidents do not happen.
As a member of the ICRO, Stephen is on hand to rescue cavers throughout Ireland who find themselves in difficulty.
"There are occasions where we have helped people who have got into trouble," he says.
"It is an all-Ireland body. Caves don't really respect borders. There is a cave in Shannon which actually crosses the border underground.
"The very first rescue I was involved in was in my second year of caving and I hadn't yet joined the ICRO. We were in Co Clare, in the longest cave in Ireland. Our group split in two: one went in through one entrance, the other into the other and we arranged to meet on the ground, cross over and come out the opposite sides. But the second group got lost. We got worried and called the ICRO. I helped out on that rescue.
"The cavers were eventually found late on that night. At about 3am in the morning I remember hauling people up on a rope out of the cave.
"I've been involved in many more. In the most recent rescue a man got stuck in a cave in Co Fermanagh. He went into a constricted bit of passage and his clothes got caught on rocks. He wasn't able to move out of that situation. We were alerted and came out and freed him up and got him to safety."
Thankfully, such situations are rare.
"Fortunately we have very few rescues in Ireland," Stephen adds.
"It is a very safe activity, when you look at the rate of accidents and number of trips happening.
"It's not what you would call a dangerous sport."
Stephen says caving is an important part of what defines him as a person.
"I started when I was at university at Queen's. A friend of mine was in the caving club and asked me to join. I remember doing caving when I was very young, with a primary school tour, and it terrified me. But I went back to it and it went on from there," he explains.
"I cave now because I love the exploration side of things.
"Finding new passages, new caves and things that have never been seen before, caves are one of the few realms on Earth that have not been explored fully. All the mountains have been climbed, we know where they are and how high they are, we have satellite imagery. But with caves there may be, and there certainly are, miles of unknown passages under Co Fermanagh and Co Cavan and the rest, and they are just waiting to be discovered.
"And that is where the excitement lies for me, trying to find a way into those passages, making maps, taking photos, meaning that those caves are there for other people to enjoy."
It's not just uncharted territory Stephen has found in a cave - he also discovered his wife, a fellow caver.
"I met Claire at a caving symposium," he reveals.
"Our first date was down a cave.
"I proposed to her on a mountain and we had some nice caving themes at our wedding. We had caving boots filled with flowers at the reception and we were joined by the caving community to celebrate our big day. It was really nice."