The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2018

Douglas Yeo and Poh Kok Wee: They risked their lives to save boys trapped in Thai cave

Rescue diver Douglas Yeo and Poh Kok Wee, who runs a company that installs high-rise signs and solar panels in Bangkok, volunteered to be part of the rescue mission to free 12 Thai boys and their football coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave.
Mr Douglas Yeo (left) is a diver with 26 years of recreational and salvage-diving experience. Mr Poh Kok Wee runs a firm that installs high-rise signs and solar panels in Nonthaburi.
Mr Douglas Yeo (left) is a diver with 26 years of recreational and salvage-diving experience. Mr Poh Kok Wee runs a firm that installs high-rise signs and solar panels in Nonthaburi.PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN, COURTESY OF POH KOK WEE

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year seeks to honour Singaporeans whose extraordinary acts of goodwill have improved their community and the lives of others. Today, The Straits Times announces the last batch of finalists for the fourth edition of the award - a long-time dedicated blood donor, two men who risked their lives to save Thai boys trapped in a cave, a young woman driven by interfaith work, a former businessman serving up free food to the needy and an academic who has advanced the discussion on inequality in Singapore.

Mr Douglas Yeo, 50, was taking a nap on July 7 when his eight-year-old son heard news on TV about the 12 Thai boys and their football coach who were trapped in a cave.

His son, Dominic, shook him awake and asked: "Dad, are you not going to do anything about the boys trapped in the cave? If me and gor gor (elder brother) are in the cave, I am sure you will go and save us. You can do it."

Mr Yeo, a diver with 26 years of recreational and salvage-diving experience, arrived at Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai on July 10. By then, eight of the boys had been rescued, but he played a key role in the evacuation of the last five victims.

That afternoon, he and 29 other divers made their way into the cave. They formed a human chain to carry the boys, who were on stretchers, from the end of chamber one to the start of chamber three, where another team lay waiting. The terrain was dark, narrow and slippery. At one point, Mr Yeo slipped 2m down into a crevice while a boy on a stretcher was passed over his head.

However, it was all worth it when he saw the boys being taken out. All except one was unconscious. "His eyes were open and he looked at me. I told him what my son told me, 'You can do it, you are my hero,' " said Mr Yeo, who teared then.

Mr Poh Kok Wee, 57, who runs a company that installs high-rise signs and solar panels in Nonthaburi, near Bangkok, also played a vital role in the rescue efforts. On June 27, four days after the boys went missing, he and four of his workers arrived at the cave, only to see operations stalled by heavy rain and flooding.

 
 
 
 

Immediately, he met the army officers there to propose scouting for alternative cave entrances. The officers agreed, and about five teams of hundreds of people were deployed.

Over four days, Mr Poh and his team used ropes and climbed the mountain up to 2,000m above the water level to check out 15 holes that could lead to the missing boys. They were next to the Myanmar border known for drug trafficking, and there were risks of stepping on landmines or being gunned down.

By using sensors, his team collected signals in one of the holes that detected humans 2km to 3km away. The location was marked, and the information sent to the search teams. One and a half days later, on July 2, the boys were found.

He said: "We are all just small candles, but this international rescue effort showed that many small candles can light up a dark cave and bring hope."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2018, with the headline 'They risked their lives to save boys trapped in Thai cave'. Print Edition | Subscribe