Interview: Thai Cave Rescue

PBS America is showing the truly incredible Thai Cave Rescue on Monday 8th July at 7:50pm; a documentary following last year's harrowing operation to rescue twelve boys from a flooded cave in Thailand. We spoke with the director of this ambitious programme, Tom Stubberfield, to find out what it was like delving into such a breathtaking story...

This was a remarkable story followed by the media all over the world, how did you feel getting a unique insight into the story?

I felt incredibly lucky to witness events unfold from such close proximity. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover several similar stories over the years, such as the Chilean Mine Rescue back in 2010, but there was something different about this event that seemed to touch people the world over at a very human level. I think that’s because the boys who were trapped were exactly that – just young boys. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare and I think people from every walk of life connected with the very real, potential, human tragedy that was unfolding. So even though I felt a sense of privilege being so close to such a huge developing news story, I never lost sight of the fact that at the heart of the event were 12 trapped, or possibly dead, teenagers and their football coach. And their parents and families were kind of helpless in being able to save them.

Can you tell us a bit about the reactions of some of the boys after they recalled the event? What was going through their minds?

At the beginning of the ordeal the boys were obviously extremely frightened. They were trapped two and half miles inside a flooded cave. They were more or less in complete darkness. They had little or no food. They were cold and exhausted and didn’t know if they were going to live or die. As I understand it, some of them were pretty much inconsolable for the first few days, but in time, and through mindfulness they came to terms with their dire situation. For nine days they existed like this, not knowing if any one was looking for them, or indeed if they would ever see their parents again. And then of course, the two British divers popped their heads up out of the water. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? 9 days with no contact with the outside world, preparing to die, and then out of the dark water, hope emerges.

There must have been immense doubt hanging over the rescuers as well. What are some of the pressures and challenges they faced during the ordeal?

The rescuers faced incredible challenges, and of course, for the first nine days, they had no idea if they were going to find the boys dead or alive, so they had to mentally prepare themselves for the worst case scenario. They also had to contend with the elements – the continuous monsoon rains, the harsh jungle terrain and the stifling heat. Then there was the search mission itself. In the early days they just had to keep pushing themselves further and further into the cave, not knowing what was waiting for them around the corner. Just the logistical operation of getting enough oxygen cylinders into the cave to support the dive operation is mind bending! Then of course, they found the boys and the objective changed overnight. It was no longer a search mission but a rescue operation. But how to do it safely? Can you imagine the weight of responsibility the lead divers must have felt? They were entirely responsible for the lives of these 13 young men. Just one mistake and the outcome would have been very different – this is highlighted of course by the sad death of ex-Navy Seal Saman Gunan, who lost his life to the cave. It was an incredible achievement, and the rescue team did it all with the world’s media, and the boys’ parents, looking on.

What made you want to create a project like this?

As soon as I heard the news that the boys were trapped, the story resonated with me, as I’m sure it did with everyone else. But I guess, because of my experience with the Chilean Miners, and some other projects I’ve been involved in, it immediately captured my imagination, and my instincts told me it was going to be a big developing story. This is when I reached out to the guys at Nova, PBS, to see if they felt the same. Thankfully they did and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why should people tune in to watch?

People should tune in because it’s a comprehensive look at one of the biggest news stories of the last decade. A story that includes incredible bravery, technical skill, selflessness and tremendous teamwork from an international group of rescuers. But also, it’s a good news story, and let’s face it, there aren’t always many of those around! 

Can you describe the documentary in three words?

Thai Cave Rescue! Ha! No, erm… Heroic selfless bravery.

As well as Thai Cave Rescue, you also created and oversaw the incredible Kilauea: Hawaii on Fire. Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline?

Indeed. I’ve just delivered a film to BBC1 about the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. This is an incredibly powerful film that mixes survivor testimony with dramatic reconstruction and some seldom seen archive. It was privilege to make. It’s due to air in January 2020. I’m also working on a raft of exciting new projects. So watch this space!

For more of the latest telly news and interviews, sign up for our newsletter to get updates sent straight to your email. Never miss out on new TV again! If you want to find something to watch right now, have a browse through our Showcase.