British divers who found boys in Thai cave helped out in past rescue efforts

British divers who found boys in Thai cave helped out in past rescue efforts
British cave-divers Richard William Stanton, Robert Charles Harper, and John Volanthen.
PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Two British volunteer divers who helped find a youth football team trapped in a cave complex in Thailand have a history of difficult rescues around the world.

Mr Richard Stanton and Mr John Volanthen, who have day jobs as a fireman and Internet engineer, respectively, negotiated a long and winding path through flooded caverns to find the 12 young boys and their coach nine days after they went missing.

"The British divers Rick and John were at the spearhead" of the forward search party, said Mr Bill Whitehouse of the British Cave Rescue Council, an informal grouping of rescue teams around Britain.

"They managed to dive the last section and get through into the chamber where the missing party was on a ledge above the water."

Also read: All 12 boys and their football coach found alive in Thailand cave after 9 days

Mr Whitehouse, who has spoken briefly to the team that also included a third Briton, Mr Robert Harper, as well as other international and Thai experts, described the difficulties of the search.

"They were diving upstream in the system, so they were having to swim against the current or pull themselves along the walls," he told the BBC.

"I gather the actual diving section was about 1.5km, about half of which was completely flooded," he said, adding that the total dive was about three hours.

All 13 members of Thai junior football team found in flooded cave

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    Parents of the boys trapped in the Chiang Rai cave shed tears of joy and relief on Wednesday morning as they watched a video of them being treated for minor injuries.

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    The Royal Thai Navy SEALS shot the video and posted it on their “ThaiSEAL” Facebook page, showing the 12 boys noticeably thinner and looking exhausted.

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    But the boys swaddled in silvery blankets proclaim themselves in good health in the clip.

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    Their parents watched the video while they were waiting to talk to the boys via a specially rigged phone system.

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    They reaffirmed their love for the children and said they were forgiven for going astray, since none of them could have expected the June 23 cave excursion would turn into a nail-biting 10-day drama, with no clear end yet in sight.

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    Attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometers of dangerously flooded tunnels.

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    The navy has raised the possibility that the 13 could be in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province until the flood waters recede, at the end of the rainy season in four months.

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    But others say the boys could be out in a matter of days if the weather is on their side and water can be pumped out of the cave complex, and if they can be taught to use scuba gear.

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    Kobchai Boonarana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, said it was up to the rescue team in the cave to decide whether and when the boys would be strong enough to tackle the journey out.

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    “We miss them and want to see them get out very soon,” one parent said as the video played. “They look thinner, but we’re happy they’re safe.”

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    Rescuers found all 12 boys and their football coach alive inside the flooded Tham Luang Cave Monday night.

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    The 13 victims from a local football club, Mu Pa Academy Mae Sai, have been stranded inside the cave in Chiang Rai province because of flash floods since June 23.

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    The group, mostly seated and with baggy football shirts pulled over their knees and illuminated by torchlight, asked for food and to leave the cave immediately, according to the video taken late Monday and shared on the official Facebook page of the Thai Navy SEALS.

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    The group appeared exhausted, rake thin, sensitive to the light but lucid, with some speaking faltering English to try to communicate with the unidentified diver.

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    Family members celebrate while camping out near Than Luang cave following news all members of children's football team and their coach were alive in the cave at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province late July 2, 2018.

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    The Chiang Rai governor praised and gave credits to two British cave diving experts who found the missing team. He did not mention the names but it is understood to be John Volanthen and Richard Stanton (pic, in blue).

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    Three British cave-divers, Richard William Stanton (L), John Volanthen (2nd-L) and Robert Charles Harper (3rd-L) arrive at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park near the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai on June 27, 2018

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    12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year old assistant football coach went missing on Saturday after they decided to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province,

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    despite a sign warning visitors that the maze of passages and chambers was prone to flooding.

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    Bicycles and football shoes belonging to the boys were found near the entrance, and rescue workers think handprints inside the cave could have been left by the group.

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    But the search has so far yielded no other trace.

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    The race to find the boys has gripped the Southeast Asian nation

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    International rescue teams, including one sent by the United States Pacific Command (PACOM),

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    are assisting the Thai army, navy and police in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.

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    Plans to drill into the mountainside overnight to drain water from inside the vast cave complex have been partially successful.

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    The 10-kilometre cave is one of Thailand's longest. Visitors are usually only allowed up to 800 meters inside the cave, which has a reputation for being difficult to navigate.

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    Exhausted family members have been keeping vigil near the cave as they await news about their loved ones.

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    Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the site, offering encouragement to rescuers and comfort to relatives.

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    "Whatever can be done, do it, the government will back it," said Prayuth.

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    "They're athletes. They're strong," he told the boys' relatives in an attempt to comfort them.

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Mr Volanthen, an Internet engineer in Bristol in the south-west of the country, and Mr Stanton, a fireman from Coventry in central England, are no strangers to difficult dives.

Mr Stanton, in his mid-50s, told his local newspaper in 2012 that his biggest achievement was helping rescue six British soldiers trapped in caves in Mexico.

In 2010, he and Mr Volanthen also helped in an attempt to find Mr Eric Establie, an experienced French potholer who became trapped underground in the Ardeche region of southern France. Mr Establie's remains were found eight days after he went missing.

"All of the cave rescue missions are quite shocking, but the most challenging one was in France," Mr Stanton said in the interview, to mark his receipt of an MBE honour from Queen Elizabeth II.

But Mr Stanton insisted that cave diving was still only a hobby which he started at the age of 18.

In Thailand, the diving team have avoided the media, with Mr Volanthen, who is said to be in his 40s, telling reporters when he arrived at the site: "We have got a job to do."

Besides them, specialists from Australia, Britain, Japan, China, Myanmar and Laos, as well as more than 30 US military personnel, joined about 1,000 Thai rescuers in the massive search-and-rescue operation.

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