Hazel McHaffie


Eighteen days of action; far more than eighteen difficult questions

In this record-breaking summer with its long hot days and short warm nights it’s hard to imagine being trapped in a dark cave inside a mountain for days, weeks on end, isn’t it? But as we know, twelve lads – aged between 11 and 16 – and their 25-year-old football coach have endured exactly that in Thailand. Thai children are warned by their grandparents about this ‘mountain that swallows people’ and doesn’t give them back; this must have felt like their worst nightmares coming true.

After nine endless days, there was worldwide rejoicing when that headlight fell on the boys, thin but all still alive. However, the rejoicing was short-lived. The authorities now faced a huge dilemma: how to get them out? They were perched on a rocky shelf 2.5 miles inside a pitch-black tortuous labyrinth of jagged passageways narrowing to just 15 inches in places, completely submerged in parts. Divers had to remove their breathing apparatus to squeeze through. The tunnel was filled with cold muddy water and the journey to reach them took an experienced person anything up to 6-7 hours to negotiate.

Hundreds of experts – elite squads from around the globe – collaborated to find a way to extricate them. The clock was against them. The tunnel needed to be partially drained, but their best efforts only achieved a fall of 1cm an hour, and there was an imminent risk of torrential monsoon rains reversing the process, submerging even the level where the boys were sitting. If they missed this small window of opportunity, it could be January before further rescue attempts that way could be attempted. Imagine! Being stuck inside a mountain for another six months!

The pressure was indeed on. But contingency plans had to be made for failure this time too. Experts laid conduits and cables against that eventuality to enable them to get provisions and communication to the trapped boys and their coach indefinitely. Communication was a major concern. Acoustics in the cavernous rocky space coupled with the rushing water made miscommunication highly likely, a perilous complication in such a fraught situation.

Some of the lads couldn’t even swim; none could dive. Experts gave them crash-courses in scuba diving, but they were already weakened by malnutrition and oxygen deprivation, possibly also suffering a potentially deadly lung disease caused by the fungi harboured in caves. With so many rescuers in the tunnel, so much activity, the air quality plummeted.

Then came devastating news: an experienced former navy SEAL volunteer tragically died in the exercise, from lack of air. He was only 38 years of age. If someone of his calibre could …

From above ground other rescuers furiously drilled holes in a desperate search for a way into the cave from above, without success, but flooding the fields of nearby farmers, ruining their crops. Others tried to expand the tunnels to make access easier. Buddhist monks kept vigil. Frightened parents camped nearby, willing the rescue attempt to succeed.

Then on Sunday the first attempt to extricate the boys was made. The world held its breath.

Four of the eleven were selected. Four were safety escorted out. Did that make it all worthwhile? Nine people were still trapped in there, facing another night deep inside the mountain.

Monday saw four more emerging, whisked off to hospital. And now? Five lives remained perilously perched on a rock in grave danger for another day and night.

Then on Tuesday came the news: all five were out. And last … a few hours later … the army doctor and three Navy Seals who’d been supporting the boys during their ordeal emerged – interestingly enough to no fanfare. I, like everyone else, let out my breath at last. And saluted those extraordinary people who had pulled off this daring and unprecedented rescue.

Why am I recounting this tale on my blog? Because it’s a clear illustration of ethical dilemmas in real life. Hard questions.

A few to kick-start thinking:
* Just how far should countries go in their efforts in such circumstances?
* What other services are being curtailed to free up this level of resources – both man-power and money?
* Who is being deprived as a consequence?
* Can hope of success against such odds justify the death of a young diver?
* Should other lives be put at risk?
* How do you weigh up the value of one life against another?
* What of the responsibility these volunteers have to their own families, their own teenage sons?
* How do you choose which boys to save first?
* Who should make that choice?
* How do organisations/individuals achieve an appropriate balance between adventure and safety where minors are concerned?
* Who should foot the bill for this mammoth rescue attempt?
* Are these boys more worthy of being saved than the hundreds of youngsters caught up say, in the floods in Japan, the Syrian crisis, starving in North Korea?
* What part does/should publicity and acclaim play in these situations?
I leave you to add your own dilemmas. You can see how my mind works. I sit on a permanent question-mark!

And of course, your opinion might depend on where you stand.
What if my own teenage grandson had been one of those trapped in the caves?
What if my husband, my son, was one of those going into the tunnel?
What if someone I love suffers because resources are deployed on this emergency rather than regular services?

How would I feel then?


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A festival of good things

Well, our beautiful city has vanished under a welter of posters and stalls and people on stilts and tourists and tents and coffee booths and … well, pretty much anything you can think of. Even a loo for the exclusive use of authors!

Me, I’m lurking with intent amidst the marquees in Charlotte Square, (where the International Book Festival is held every year) and in the true spirit of the Olympics, wearing my ‘medals’ with pride!!Festival passesI have open access to the Press Pod but am rather intimidated by the real journalists who swagger in, laden with cameras sporting enormous lenses, who know everything there is to know about wifi, and type at breakneck speed. I periodically stroll in and out in a nonchalant way, as if this is all run-of-the-mill stuff for me, and that I’m preoccupied with the wording of my next scintillating copy, but then scuttle home to type up my blog on my own computer in the privacy of my own office where no one can see my cack-handed way of negotiating a keyboard. I mean, at least look the part!

Star experience-of-the-week for me goes to a personal first. My novels – MINE! – have featured in the 3for2 sections in Blackwell’s. How grown up is that? I’ve often wandered around these central aisles wondering what authors or their publishers did to get these coveted slots. Now here I am! Cool or what?Blackwells windowAs to the events I’ve attended, well, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a Festival event as on Tuesday afternoon when I listened to ‘tartan noir’ crime writer, Val McDermid, and the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, Professor Sue Black, who has a wealth of experience in the identification of bodies in places like war-torn Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Thailand after the tsunami. They are obviously great friends and sparring partners, and we had a fantastically entertaining as well as instructive hour.

Forensic science may be a regular part of our popular culture, thanks to novels, television and films, but developments in the world of pathology, and understanding of DNA, and related technology, proceed apace. Weaving today’s possibilities into a novel can make it out of date tomorrow. Even the criminals catch up and learn how to avoid incriminating behaviours. So how do authors keep up?

Sue Black may be a top-of-her-tree professor but she has a remarkable facility for reducing complex science to understandable and graphic images and language. We learned so many astonishing facts. Did you know that an embalmed pubic scalp looks like ‘tinned tuna with hairs on it’? Or that a body retrieved from a bog after 200 years resembles a ‘leather bag with a face on it‘? Or that the back of one’s hand is as unique as a fingerprint? Or that it is possible to tell from bones and teeth where in the world your mother was when she was pregnant with you? Or that when someone gets a tattoo, some of the dye is deposited in the lymph nodes, so that even if the limb is cut off, it’s possible to say unequivocally, this person had a tattoo which was X, Y and Z colours? Well, you do now!

I was impressed too by the lengths McDermid goes to to authenticate her stories. She sees it as something she ‘owes to the dead‘ – an unexpected and moving notion from such a flamboyant character. But recently she’s been given an opportunity to give something back for all the help the forensic scientists have given to crime writers. Dundee University needs a new state-of-the-art morgue, where bodies can be embalmed using modern techniques to keep them flexible. The professor was promised a £million if she could raise a second million. She turned to her crime-writing friend for help. McDermid’s approach is robust: we shall almost all require surgery at some stage in our lives; we want the surgeon to be as nifty with the knife as possible; let’s give him excellent corpses to learn on, not something that ‘resembles a three-day-old turkey’. Together they are campaigning to raise that sum – details at http://www.millionforamorgue.com/. For £1 you can vote for the new institution to be named after your favourite crime writer (anyone but Lee Child ‘because you can’t have a Child’s Morgue’!).

Another star turn was Professor Michael Sandel on Monday. He’s been described as a ‘rockstar morallist’, and he is hugely charismatic with a most engaging style of drawing the audience in to discussion as he explores difficult ethical and philosophical issues, forcing them to confront their own assumptions, biases, and lazy thinking. This week it was: What is the proper role of markets, where are the boundaries, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that money cannot buy? Based on his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy.

He brought the subject to life within seconds with his accessible tales of cash incentives to drug-addict mothers, inducements of room-upgrades to prisoners, advertisements for Viagra. Clear, immediate and humane. He outlined actual examples of financial incentives being used: to overweight people to get them to diet and eat healthily; to a Swiss mountain village to encourage them to accept the dumping of nuclear waste close by; to homeless people to get them to queue and boost sales of different commodities; to children to encourage them to get good grades or read books or write letters of thanks.

And through the entertainment of these exercises, Sandel teased out important philosophical issues, demonstrating that money can change the value of the goods being exchanged – for example, the concept of gratitude behind a letter of thanks; or a kidney donated by a poor peasant in India to a wealthy American businessman; or a prostitute fuelling her drug addiction. Cash incentives can crowd out higher motivations like civic duty, family welfare. Society, he concluded, must ask how important these core intrinsic values are, and then decide where market incentives fit in.

Sorry, this is an extra long blog this week – and I could go on about all the other amazing events I’ve attended, but enough’s enough. I’m having a ball, keeping up to date with the official blogging, (Genotype), and amazingly it’s been dry almost all the time – a rarity for this Festival! What more could a body ask for?

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