BANGKOK: Precisely one year ago, 12 schoolboys and their football coach went missing in a Thai cave. Like the rest of the country and much of the rest of the world, Valepon Gunan was gripped by the fear and uncertainty of the rescue operation unfolding in northern Thailand.
She did not expect that it would soon be her own husband who would be lost in the darkness as he tried to save the lives of the boys. His death - 13 days into the rescue operation - was a crushing blow that Valepon has struggled to recover from.
Saman ‘Sam’ Gunan - a former Thai Navy SEAL and avid triathlete - lost his life trying to save 13 people he had never met from the flooded cave complex in Chiang Rai.
The volunteer diver was on his way back from supplying air tanks along the rescue route when his breathing device fell from his mouth. The water was freezing. The visibility was nearly zero. Saman could not find his equipment in the cold, murky darkness and ran out of air.
He has been gone for nearly a year now, and life has become a constant struggle for his widowed wife. She knows he will never come home, but total surrender to that reality makes the pain too much to bear. So Valepon tries to find some consolation to protect her broken heart.
“I feel he has never left. We just can’t talk to each other, that’s all. He’s with me all the time,” she said in tears.
Whenever I see his photos at work, I’ll smile at him. I tell myself it’s all right, we come to work together and go home together in the evening. It’s good that he always comes to work with me, everywhere I go.
Saman’s death keeps her on the verge of emotional collapse. A look at his Instagram photos, old Facebook posts or his favourite food often brings her a moment of joy before the realisation kicks in and drags her back to sorrow. Every day she fights to move on, distracting herself with hard work, a master’s degree course and a language class.
Her job with the Airports of Thailand takes up 9-15 hours a day. In the evening, more hours are spent on learning English. At weekends, she goes to the University of Rangsit for a course in innovation and entrepreneurship.
By the time she gets home, Valepon is burnt out. Exhaustion is what she needs, she says, to stop herself from rekindling happy memories of Saman and drifting back into a pool of lost love and inconsolable grief.
“That’s why I study a lot. I won’t be able to keep my head on straight if I’m at home,” she told CNA. “So I use society and work to rid myself of free time. But whenever I’m alone, I still miss him.”
THE FINAL MOMENTS
Valepon first met her husband in Nakhon Phanom, where her family lives. The young navy officer came to compete in a triathlon before chancing on 23-year-old Valepon at a local park. He asked for her number, and love began to blossom. The couple got married after Saman took a job with the Airports of Thailand in Bangkok.
READ: 'We won't let his life be in vain': Tributes pour in for Thai diver who died trying to save boys in cave
Their life went on smoothly until June 23, 2018. Twelve boys aged 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old football coach from the Wild Boar Academy went on an expedition that took a disastrous turn.
After a rehearsal match, the group biked to the Tham Luang cave complex in Mae Sai district near Myanmar. They parked their bicycles at the entrance, left their mobile phones and football boots, and went in to explore the 7km cave complex without knowing a heavy monsoon rain would fall.
By the time they wanted to leave, water had filled the chambers and blocked their exit. Their disappearance triggered a search and rescue operation that snowballed into one of the most complex multinational missions the world has ever witnessed.
It involved more than 10,000 officers from the Thai Army, Navy and Air Force, police personnel, medics, cave diving experts, engineers, geologists, volunteers and many more - both from Thailand and abroad. One of them was retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Gunan.
On June 30, 2018, Saman flew to Chiang Rai. He told his wife he would deliver something at the Tham Luang cave complex. Not much information was given, and Valepon thought he would return the next day.
“See you this evening in Chiang Rai. May luck be on our side and bring the boys home,” Saman said in a video he shot with his mobile phone before departure. He was seen wearing sunglasses and standing in front of a military plane on the runway. On his left hand he wore his wedding ring.
Valepon told CNA she had no idea her husband would volunteer to dive in the dark, water-clogged cavern, whose complex network of winding passages and underground chambers made the world’s most experienced cave divers uneasy. Still, she was worried. There was a feeling of dread he was up to something dangerous.
READ: Grit, daring and beating terror: Stories of how Thailand's cave boys were rescued
“He was stubborn. I asked him every single day when he would come home and he would tell me there was no flight or asked to spend one more night with his brothers. On the day he arrived there, he said they had to race against time because it was raining, damp and wet,” she said.
Saman was an active social media user. From the day he arrived at the Tham Luang caves, he shared many photographs and videos with friends and family on various platforms. After finishing work on the rescue efforts - usually in the early hours - he would reply to his wife’s messages, telling her what he was up to, where he was going and when he might be able to see her.
On Jul 5, Saman sent her a photo of wild boars he had spotted and jokingly said, “Here they are! The ‘Wild Boars’ have been found!” Then he went quiet.
Valephon knew he had entered the caves but did not realise her husband was swimming for the last time. He did not answer her calls or reply to her messages. When she checked her phone the next morning, her questions were still unread:
What are you doing? Why didn’t you answer the phone? Have you left already? Where are you?
Saman died at about 2am that day. A lack of oxygen made him fall unconscious. His diving partner tried to revive him but did not succeed. He was brought to one of the chambers where first aid was administered. He was then rescued from the caves and taken to hospital, but nothing could be done.
Valepon would see her husband one last time - but just his body in a coffin. She managed to say just a few words to the man she loved.
A FALLEN HERO
The news of Saman’s death circulated quickly. People around the world joined Thais in their grief for the fallen hero. Outside the caves, Thai Navy SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew was emotional in a press conference where he told reporters the herculean mission they had to complete.
“We’re planning to carry oxygen through a pipe to the children and their coach. To reach them, however, it takes us five to six hours, and about the same amount of time on our way back. So, in total, we have to remain submerged for 12 hours,” he said. “We’ve never experienced anything like this before.”
But we won’t let our colleague die for nothing. We will soldier on.
Not long after Saman died, the Wild Boar footballers were rescued. Dozens of cave divers from around the world spent three days extracting them from the flooded caves. The operation was highly risky. All of the boys were sedated and fitted with a full-face mask before being carried out by cave divers. Every one of them made it to safety.
Upon learning about Saman’s death, the Tham Luang survivors wept inside the hospital ward where they were recovering. They wrote farewell messages on his portrait, thanked him and promised to be good persons.
“It’s like we get to live a new life. We’re healthy, getting better each day, and back in the embrace of our families again. It’s like a miracle. This miracle would never have happened without the determination and sacrifice of many people, and an important person in this mission is ‘Brother Sam’,” the team said in a statement.
Brother Sam has left us forever but his kindness towards us and our families will forever remain in our hearts. We would like to thank you for your dedication, sacrifice, will and determination that helped us. May your soul rest in heaven forever.
The global response to the incredible rescue was overwhelming. Since they were released from hospital, the boys and their coach have appeared in talk shows and events around the world. They were offered scholarships and, for the previously stateless team members, granted Thai citizenship. Netflix is currently working with them to produce a miniseries.
For Valepon, she was given a permanent job with the Airports of Thailand, where she replaced her husband. She also received a number of trophies and certificates in honour of his sacrifice.
In life or in death, Saman is her pillar of strength. Whenever she feels like giving in, Valepon speaks to his photographs. Her mobile phone is full of them, precious memories held close to her heart.
“I’m fine looking at his photos, but whenever I write something about them, I always cry,” she told CNA.
“I smile when I’m with other people. But when I get home, I’m a mess. So, I have to build the strength for myself and distract myself by doing many things. When I don’t have free time, I can’t think about it over and over again.”
Besides work and studies, Valepon also tells herself that Saman died for a great cause. He died to save 13 lives. The rescue to which he gave his life has transformed the backwater district of Mae Sai, which now sees throngs of tourists visit from around the world.
“He made me proud,” she said.
“I believe he’ll be remembered. History has already been written. I don’t think people will forget him.”