The rescue missions — more than 50 years apart — parallel one another, demonstrating the dangers of amateur caving and the painstaking process to rescue those trapped.
Much of the world rejoiced Monday with the news that divers had rescued the final four of 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand.
The developments Monday ended a two-week ordeal that captivated audiences across the globe anxious to see members of the soccer team rescued, as journalists chronicled the international effort to see the boys to safety.
The concentration of divers, cave experts and military personnel are reminiscent of America’s largest cave search that took place in the 1960s in Hannibal, when the nation’s eyes were trained on the rescue attempt of three boys who went missing beneath Hannibal.
While the scope of the rescue mission and amount of attention received are eerily similar, unlike this week’s successful rescue of the Thai soccer team, the three Hannibal boys were never seen again, and are likely buried somewhere beneath Route 79. The rescue missions — more than 50 years apart — parallel one another, demonstrating the dangers of amateur caving and the painstaking process to rescue those trapped.
Joel Hoag, 13, his brother Billy Hoag, 11, and their neighbor Craig Dowell, 14, went missing on May 10, 1967, after entering Hannibal’s Murphy’s Cave to explore. Many caves had been uncovered by blasting associated with the improvement to Route 79. Unlike the Thai episode, the children entered the cave alone. They were last seen by a school teacher around 5:15 p.m.
Immediately, a massive search begun to try to locate the boys, similar to when the Thai soccer team did not return from exploring Thailand’s vast cave system on June 23.
Cavers from coast to coast traveled to Hannibal to assist in the rescue efforts. They soon made a grim realization: blasting on Route 79 had created countless hairline fractures, destabilizing the cave system and fostering the collapse of ceilings and passageways, making a search and rescue far more complicated.
National news reporters flocked to America’s Hometown to provide daily updates on the rescue mission, much as they did in Thailand the past two weeks.
International efforts helped save the Thai boys, with experts flying in from as far away as the United States to provide state-of-the-art technology to carefully extract the boys. Unlike America’s most expansive cave search, the Thai situation was made much easier when the team was located in a small cave cut off by monsoon rains on July 2.
The Hoag brothers and Craig Dowell were never found.
Experts realized, though, that time was of the essence in both situations. In Thailand, the boys were trapped in a space little more in size than an average American living room. Oxygen canisters were brought in to replenish the supply. Divers worked with the boys, who had no diving experience, to teach them to dive from the cave. The Thai rescue mission was described worldwide as “daring” and “risky.”
Likewise, cave experts knew of the danger in finding Hannibal lost boys.
“The race-against-time search was led by William Karras, a Virginia resident who had established the Speleological Society of America the previous fall. The focus of this new caving group was search and rescue,” said John Wingate, a speleohistorian who authored a book about Hannibal’s lost boys.
Karras warned that the cold environment of Hannibal’s cave would lower the body temperatures of the lost boys to dangerous levels if they weren’t found quickly. The effort redoubled to find Hannibal’s lost boys amidst the labyrinthine cave system, much of which was unmapped at the time.
“Often, passages were found full of debris from ceiling breakdown, cavers uncertain whether the collapses had occurred yesterday or 30 million years ago,” Wingate said. “At the highway roadcut location, cavers identified nearly a mile of equally complex passages, many of them with unstable ceilings of clay where rock had fallen away making them prone to further collapse.”
After days of searching, the rescue mission in Hannibal ended unsuccessfully.
The search for the Thai soccer team and the Hannibal boys both quickly became a national and international story with a heart-wrenching narrative, huge search effort, and large news presence.
In Thailand, anxiety turned to relief and joy at the team’s rescue.
But to this day, the remains of the Hannibal boys have not been found, a lingering mystery after America’s largest cave search.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach editor Eric Dundon at email@example.com .