I arrived in Bangkok in May hauling my heavy luggage, with the intention of finishing a broadband trunking project in the city and promptly returning home to China. I had no idea that I would soon be involved in a gripping rescue mission in this foreign country as the whole world watched closely.
I had been staying in Bangkok for over a month and we were preparing for the cutover. I thought I would be returning to China within a few days. Several days before, we had noticed news was beginning to make headlines around the world about a Thai soccer team that was lost in a cave. I had not realised that one of our customers in Thailand had already reached out to the Huawei rep office asking for help. They had discussed how our eLTE solutions could be used to provide emergency communications services in the time-critical rescue mission.
That morning, I was going to the equipment room of the customer when I received an unexpected phone call from my manager. He told me to quickly start preparing to support the rescue mission in Chiang Rai, the city where the soccer team was trapped in the cave. We were to install an eRapid system on site at the cave. The plan was to deploy a remote radio unit (RRU) in the cave, and use an eLTE network to send real-time video signals to the command center on the ground. This would enable live communication between the rescue personnel in the cave and the command center so that they could conduct their plan accordingly and respond rapidly and effectively.
The plan, however, was rendered impossible due to the conditions in the cave. As I was preparing the materials and commissioning the equipment from the Bangkok warehouse, I learned that many areas of the cave had been flooded. Our original plan required us to carry the power supply unit across the flooded areas, but the unit was not waterproof and would not be able to withstand the water damage. We had to change the plan. We decided to deploy an emergency command system at the entrance of the cave and send the signal deep inside.
At ten o’clock in the evening, the emergency communications response vehicle left for Chiang Rai amid heavy rain. The following day, Huawei’s technical support staff members – Bom, Blue (both local staff members) and I, and communications staff members from our partner and customer would be boarding a flight to Chiang Rai.
I knew that our service would be critical to the survival of the boys and the coach. I felt a heavy weight on my shoulders, and couldn’t fall asleep that night.
Upon arrival at the cave, I spotted communications vehicles and support personnel from several major Thai telcos. I realised that we were only a small piece in the rescue mission. There were two other rescue teams working in parallel. The Thai Navy Seals were searching inside the cave, while the police were searching for places on the hill to dig a vertical passageway down to the underground cave. The rescue mission was just beginning.
We surveyed the site in the morning, and held a meeting with the customer to discuss potential locations to install the eRapid system. Around the same time, the eRapid system was carried by the emergency communications response vehicle to the local branch of the customer. We quickly checked that the equipment was working, but had not yet received any instructions from the customer on the next steps.
I went back to the hotel at ten o’clock that evening. I was wide awake and in no hurry to go to bed. I opened Google Maps and found that we were right in the area known as the Golden Triangle on the border between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. From the hotel room, I could hear the sound of the Mekong River which flows through the region. Eventually I fell asleep listening to the peaceful sound of the river. It was the perfect place for me to rest after my long day.
Rescue personnel at the entrance of the cave
Early that morning, more and more people began to arrive at the local branch office of the customer. Our communications vehicle was inspected by a four-star general. I reckoned that our responsibilities would go far beyond simply putting together an emergency communications system at the entrance of the cave.
My hunch was right. Just before I went to bed that night, I was told by Bom that the customer said that they would be digging a hole from the top of the hill to reach the cave, and that we were expected to climb to the top with them.
At 3:30 in the morning, we set out for the designated place. Unfortunately, Bom had to pull out of the rescue mission to attend to an urgent family matter.
At eight o’clock in the morning, we arrived at the foot of the hill along with the police and began climbing. The area around it was damp and muddy, and it was surrounded by thick forests and harsh terrain, which proved to be an extra challenge. June happened to be the rainy season in Thailand and the creek nearby had started to flood. I was extra careful to not get my backpack wet which held my laptop. I could not jump over the water, or I would risk slipping and breaking my laptop, so I slowly waded through it. Fortunately, everything turned out fine.
The climb to the top of the hill was tough. The police led the way, digging footholds for us with their spades to create a path. We also used a rope to grab on to as we trekked through the forest. Even so, it was still a strenuous climb. After carrying my laptop for so long, by the time I got to the halfway point up the hill, I was too exhausted to go any further. I asked one of the employees from the partner organisation to help me carry the backpack to the top. He willingly accepted.
It took us two hours to reach the top. The eRapid system was delivered by helicopter. The system was deployed without a hitch and the antenna was carried deep inside the cave by the police. The real-time picture inside the cave appeared on the dispatch console for the first time. Before the system was set up, the 3G and 4G connections were weak at the top of the hill and the police had to send text messages to stay in contact. After the emergency communications network was up and running, the police were given 20 eLTE terminals, boosting on-site command and communication.
Wading through water at the foot of the hill
Climbing the hill with the support of a rope
Blue, Gang, and I taking a short break after an exhausting trek
Blue tripped and fell three times on the way down, so he ended up staying in the hotel that day. To prevent any more injuries, the police decided to take us up and down the hill in a helicopter.
The system was stable and functioning well. The rescue team members went through the entrance of the cave, crawling deeper and deeper inside. They were carrying eLTE terminals and wearing head cameras so they can capture and transmit the video to the temporary command center at the top of the hill. The eLTE network also enabled real-time voice communication between the rescue personnel and the commanders, giving visibility to the rescue process. Reports were immediately delivered to the command center, where decisions were made and relayed to the rescue personnel.
Other rescue teams were also arriving from overseas. While casually chatting with a police officer, I told him that I had seen a Chinese rescue team arrive the day before. The officer patted me on the shoulder and said, “You are the first Chinese to join the rescue mission. You are our super hero!” I replied, “I’m no hero. You are the real super hero.”
A Thai commander closely monitoring the rescue mission
Checking and configuring the cameras on the rescuer helmets
It was the ninth day since the soccer team went missing. The police carried a power generator to the top of the hill so that the eLTE system could keep running around the clock and the rescue mission could continue throughout the night. As time went on, the atmosphere began to grow heavy. However, by the time I got back to the hotel, I was told by Bom that he had heard other rescue team members say that the boys were expected to be found very soon. It was the best news I had heard all week.
A rescuer searching inside the cave holding an eLTE terminal
It was the sixth day of my stay in Chiang Rai. I was running out of clean clothes to wear. Cracks and fissures started to appear on my feet from having worn wet socks and shoes for so long. I was too exhausted to trek up the hill again and had to stay at the hotel to rest. At 10:30 in the evening, I heard news that the boys had been found alive. I could finally have a good night’s sleep.
Everyone seemed excited about the news from the night before. The customer had not come up with a detailed plan to get the youngsters and their coach out, so they asked Bom (who had just returned from Bangkok the day before), Blue, and me to go back to Bangkok. Our partner would stay there to continue providing support.
The very next day, Bom and Blue received a request from the customer to go back to Chiang Rai to provide additional support. On July 10, we received the best news of all – the twelve boys and the coach had all been rescued.
I was so relieved to hear that the boys were safe and sound. In the seven days and seven nights I spent in Chiang Rai, I experienced so many things for the first time in my life. It was my first visit to the Golden Triangle, my first trek up a remote hill in a foreign country, and my very first international rescue mission. I was asked later by a colleague how it felt to be working onsite during rescue. I told him that although I was only a very small piece in the mission, all our efforts were worth it in the end. It was such an honor to work alongside my colleagues to support the mission using Huawei products and emergency telecommunication service solutions.
The original text is published in HUAWEI PEOPLE Issue 294 (Aug 31,2018