Meet the lone Filipino in breathtaking Thailand cave rescue

Erik Tenedero, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 06 2018 01:53 PM | Updated as of Jul 09 2018 10:23 PM

Cedjie Aquino, the lone Filipino in the rescue mission to extract 12 young footballers and their coach from Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Cedjie Aquino

The conditions were getting worse. The onslaught of the monsoon was relentless and authorities are racing against time to rescue the boys. 

ChristofferJohn Aquino, “Cedjie” to his friends, already heard of the news about the 12 young footballers and their coach trapped in a flooded underground cave in northern Thailand since June 23. 

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach were found inside the cave on Monday, after nine days underground, hungry but in good spirits. They went missing after they set out to explore the cave on June 23.

Rescuers and divers from the Thai Navy, United Kingdom, United States, and Australia have exhausted ways to get to the boys through the cavern's entrance. 

That’s when Cedjie got a call. Local authorities are asking for volunteers who are skilled in rock climbing with gears ready to climb at least 800 meters. 

“I was called in to help as the cave entrance attempt was becoming quite a challenge due to rising water level. People were becoming restless and angry at the slow progress. So they sought another way in,” Cedjie said in an interview with ABS-CBN News. 

This time, instead of going in through the cave's entrance to extract the boys, rescuers were to look for possible holes above and around the 10-kilometer cave system that stretches into a mountain.

And so Cedjie, who has spent 17 years in Thailand, packed his gears and joined the thousand other volunteers from different countries. 

There, he would become the lone Filipino on the site of a rescue mission that has seized the attention of a global crowd. 


THE MISSION BEGINS

Cedjie Aquino making his way down on a rock formation around the cave where 12 young Thai footballers and their coach were trapped. Photo from Cedjie Aquino

Cedjie is an English teacher in a government school. But during his spare time, the 38-year-old Davao native works as a rock climbing instructor and guide. 

“I develop and bolt multi pitch routes here in central Thailand,” he said. 

It was his passion for “life threatening” sports that started it all. A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, Cedjie became friends with cave divers and rescuers. 

In the early morning of June 29, the 7th day since the football squad got trapped, Cedjie with two Thai climber friends endured an 800-kilometer drive from Bangkok to Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai.

 

Cedjie Aquino's team undergoes briefing before starting their mission in Chiang Rai

And thus began the work for “Camp Geo,” the name of Cedjie’s team composed of rock climbers, cave experts and paramedics from countries like Russia, United States, Cameroon, and Thailand. 

They started climbing, searching every nook and cranny, looking for holes or any other possible passageways to extract the boys. 

It was a challenge trailblazing through dense vegetation, he said, and the heavy rain is making the task harder than it already was. 

They crawled on tight spaces, sticking their hands under rocks and holes, not minding the “potential dangers of being bitten or stung by poisonous creatures.” 

“Was there a trail? No. Is climbing limestone in wet conditions difficult? F*** yeah! Is climbing limestone on trad gear in wet conditions more challenging? F**** suicide!", Cedjie said. 

“Nonetheless we did it.”

Cedjie Aquino (far right) with his fellow climbers from Russia and Thailand. Photo from Cedjie Aquino

Prior to becoming a volunteer, Cedjie said he tried to enlist Filipino cave experts in the rescue mission.

“I knew immediately the Philippine team composed of cave divers and cave rescuers would be able to help,” he said. 

The team responded and converged as fast as they could but the problem is flying the team from Philippines to Thailand, he said.

“I was calling different Thai offices asking for help, to fly our boys in. But it ended in frustration as none could help. They were all busy with the cave incident and had no direct line.”

With the failed attempts to bring in Filipino rock climbers, Cedjie continued his mission. 

On July 2, after 9 days, two British rescuers finally reached the boys. 

In a video posted by the Thai Navy SEAL on Facebook, the football team can be seen sitting on an elevated mound in a cavern, the rescuers' flashlights breaking through the deep darkness of the cave. 

 

THE WORK CONTINUES

Taking the boys out remains a dangerous and arduous task. 

Cedjie's team was able to find a “potential hole” that might lead straight to the main chamber of the cave. 

“If they do decide to consider the possibility of drilling, then those kids need not wait for flood waters to subside, or better yet, they need not have to dive,” Cedjie wrote in his social media account. 

 

Cedjie Aquino's team found this hole which he said might lead straight to the main chamber of the cavern.

Much like in the Philippines, monsoon season in Thailand begins in July and usually ends in October. 

Reports from Thailand said the boys will be taught how to dive for them to be able to go out of the cave. Many have questioned this plan as even expert divers took nine days to reach them. 

Even Cedjie thought this plan was very dangerous. 

“I still believe the safest way to extract those kids is to drill a hole and have them exit that way. But again, who am I to be heard? In this country, you need to have ranks and connections. We are just offering an alternative solution,” he said. 

'I'M NO HERO'

Cedjie admitted that it was somehow stressful to “single-handedly represent an entire country” in a dramatic rescue mission that has drawn attention. 

He said he took part in the rescue mission because he knew what he was doing and that he can't just stay home knowing that he could have done something. 

But amid praises, he was quick to say that he is no hero. 

“Heroes are six feet under,” he said jokingly. “If you knew you could make a difference, wouldn't you do something? I was just at the right place at the right time in a really bad situation.”

Cedjie Aquino (fourth from the left) and his fellow volunteers inside the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai. Photo from Cedjie Aquino

For now, he is back in his usual life in Thailand, inside a classroom and teaching his students after 6 tiring days of staying in Chiang Rai for the rescue mission. He barely had any sleep but he went straight back to what he called his primary duty in the Land of Smiles. 

He said his students were delighted to see him back. Some hugged him, while others cried. 

“It was a good feeling,” he admitted. 

At the end of the day, Cedjie said he is “just a nobody” who helped.

“The one good thing about all this, you get to see the good in humanity. You meet people whose intentions are pure, dedicated to just helping. We are all here because we know we can do something,” he said.

A Thai rescuer died during an operation to save 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave complex, the latest setback for a mission fraught with danger as rescue teams brace for more rain that could delay their work.

Samarn Poonan, a former member of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit who was part of the rescue team in Chiang Rai, died on Thursday night after entering the cave to lay oxygen tanks along a potential exit route, the SEAL commander said.

- With Reuters