This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
For almost two weeks, 12 boys aged between 11 and 16 – and their football coach – have been trapped in the Tham Luang caves in Thailand. The group entered the caves on the 23rd of June, but were trapped when a flash flood a metre high blocked their exit. They were found on Monday the 2nd of July by a group of British rescue divers, but it may still take days – if not weeks or months – to get them out, as rescuers try to pump enough water out of the cave to eventually carry or swim them out.
It's obviously impossible for most people to imagine what it's like to be stuck in a dark cave for days, without much hope of survival. But someone who does have an idea what these boys are going through is Lothar Emannuel Kaiser. In 1952, the then-18-year-old was trapped in the 200 km long Hölloch cave in Switzerland, along with his biology teacher and two other students. The group were trying to measure the cave when they were hit by a flash flood.
From then on they lived in darkness, surviving off rationed supplies of stale bread and canned meat for ten days, before the water level dropped and they were able to free themselves. I spoke to Kaiser about his experience and how it changed him.
VICE: What was it like when you realised you were trapped?
Lothar Kaiser: The adrenaline was initially stronger than the fear because we had to immediately face up to the realities of that overwhelming situation. At first, all you can do is run and climb towards safety. It's only when you come to your senses a bit and you notice the darkness that you feel the fear and hopelessness.
What were the hardest things to deal with?
Firstly, the uncertainty. Will I get out or not? Will I survive the next 24 hours? Then you start worrying about your provisions. We hardly ate a thing for ten days – I lost 10kg in that time. There was also the constant darkness to deal with. At one point, I couldn't work out whether it was day or night. And it didn't help that the temperature stayed at six degrees celsius throughout and that we had to sleep on bare rocks in soaking wet clothes without a blanket. And finally, you have to deal with your own thoughts – of your parents, your siblings, of life and death.
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What was the group dynamic like in that situation?
Our teacher, Professor Böckli, was our leader. He told us what to do and we looked up to him. We eventually collected some sand to sleep on, and we found small ponds to drink from. But the most important thing was keeping ourselves busy: speaking to each other, reminiscing about old times, doing calculations, telling stories and jokes. In that situation you have to be imaginative. As soon as you're alone, that's when the dark thoughts start to come in.
Did you ever give up hope?
We had a bit of a crisis on the sixth day. In one part of the cave we could hear little thuds dropping faster and faster. We assumed that it had started to rain again outside. That almost took all our hope away.
What advice would you give the football team in Thailand, if were you able to tell them anything?
Maintaining a strong community will make the situation bearable. They have to be courageous and protect each other from giving up hope. It's also important that their coach keeps everyone occupied and cheers them up when they're feeling down. Finally, they have to be economical with their supplies. For example, we only ever used our flashlights when we needed to explore a different part of the cave.
How did your family cope while you were trapped?
My father spent every day and night at the front of the cave with the rescue team, afraid. There wasn't social media back then, and we didn't have a television, so the only way anyone could get information was from the radio and newspapers.
How often do you think back to your time in the cave?
I'm still haunted by a dream in which I'm in a cave, struggling to get out. In the dream, I always have to climb a spiral staircase that gets thinner and more slippery the higher up I go. And in the end, I have to jump into a dark abyss. That's when I always wake up drenched in sweat.
How did the experience change you?
In some ways, I became more serious, but I think I also developed a better sense of humour. But above all, the experience brought me to faith. If you survive a ten-day, near-death experience, then you'll become religious too. We prayed together in the cave. When you don't know whether you're going live to see tomorrow, you start to think about where you go after death. I now know where the journey is going.