Illinois honors Thai-American for role in cave rescue

Illinois has honored a local Thai-American restaurant owner for his role in the rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team from a flooded cave in Chiang Rai last month, as he used his training as a groundwater expert to coordinate the work of bringing down water levels so divers could reach the boys.

Both the State of Illinois and the city of Marion presented Thanet Natsiri, who owns the Thai D Classic Thai Cuisine restaurant in Marion, with certificates of recognition at a meeting of the Marion City Council last week. Marion Mayor Anthony Rinella presented the city certificate and Illinois State Representative Dave Severin, gave the state honor, also inviting Thanet and his wife Yada to visit the state capital to meet all the local lawmakers.

In July, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner lauded Thanet in an official tweet, saying he was “key to the Thailand cave rescue” and had made Illinois proud.

Although he lives in Marion, Thanet was visiting Thailand at the time the boys were trapped in the cave. He was in the Kingdom working on a project to build wells for farmers and others in areas vulnerable to drought so they could have enough water in dry season. To his surprise, he received a call from the Thai military requesting his help in Chiang Rai.

The Tham Luang Cave where the 13 soccer players had ventured suffered a flash flood during an unexpectedly early monsoon downpour. Although divers had located the boys deep inside the cave, bringing them out through dark and narrow flooded passageways would be very risky, and one plan was to leave the boys in the cave for months until the monsoon rains subsided and water levels would recede. That idea was abandoned, however, when it became clear the health of the boys was deteriorating.

Because of his expertise, Thanet was asked to control the amount of water entering the cave, and find any way possible to reduce it. He needed to coordinate the efforts of civilian, military and volunteers on a team that included U.S. military rescue personnel from Okinawa and cave divers from the United Kingdom, and Navy SEALS from several countries.

“We had to come up with a plan to reduce the water. I was in a difficult position coordinating everyone and the daily plan,” Thanet told The Southern Illinoisan newspaper. “Any decision had to be one of the best solutions at that moment. Nobody wanted to be in this position. Nobody wanted to be responsible for the plan.”

Thanet said he kept his focus by thinking about the lives they could save. The pressure, nonetheless, was intense.

“If something happened to one of the kids, I would feel guilty all of my life,” Thanet said.

Fortunately, the rescue was more successful than anyone had expected. Thanet called it a “miracle,” and although he accepted the honors from his city and state, he insists that he does not feel like a hero.