On Saturday 23 June 2018 twelve boys (aged 11 - 16) finished football practice under the watchful eye of their 25-year-old coach, Ekkapol Chantawong. The group then cycled to a popular tourist attraction: Tham Luang Nang Non cave for a birthday treat.
This cave system runs for many miles underground and is explorable from November to June. It is prone to seasonal flooding during the monsoon months: June to October. Apparently there are warning signs discouraging visits during the rainy season.
The second volume of the 'Caves of Northern Thailand' states that "Tham Luang Nang Non cave has an impressive entrance chamber about 80mt / 260ft long and leads to an easy walk along spacious passageways that last for about half a mile / 1km.
"At the end of the marked path the passage enters a series of chambers, boulder collapses and boulder chokes where route finding can be difficult. After a few hundred metres, the cave narrows to a passage 2mt / 6.5ft wide and 3 mt / 10ft high. After that, the cave splits off into different directions, including several that lead to other chambers, pools of water or places with high avens and shafts that reach the surface."
Media reports have suggested that it not the first time the boys had explored the cave in northern Thailand. Apparently they would regularly visit the cave, located in the district of Mae Sai, for recreation and training. Unconfirmed reports indicate the group took torches and some food, but they were not properly equipped for a long stay.
The alarm is raised
The alarm was raised when a mother reported that her son had not return from football practice on Saturday, prompting the search. Rescue workers found cycles and sports equipment outside the cave later that evening. Heavy rain meant the boys and their coach were now stuck in the cave because of flooding.
The 'Guardian' newspaper reported on Monday 25 June that rising waters were frustrating the efforts of the rescuers, including navy Seal divers, to move farther into the cave complex. That evening officials made the call to temporarily pull out.
Shoes and bags had been found in a second chamber and it was thought that the group had gone deeper into the cave.
The substantial search and rescue effort by Thai civilian and military authorities was being thwarted by continual heavy rain, hampering access to search the cave system. The plan was to wait for water pumps to be brought in, to hopefully allow rescue personnel access to another passageway.
British Cave Rescue Council
On Tuesday 26 June the BCRC (British Cave Rescue Council) received a phone call from the Thai authorities asking for specialist help. This request was not unexpected because there is a small team of British extreme explorers who assist in these intense rescues, ie Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and Jason Mallinson.
Rick is the quiet man who quietly and continuously, with incredible determination, starts at A and gets to Z, and achieves things. Nothing stands in his way. He is one of those individuals who is going to get there. Martyn Farr, cave explorer and author
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, along with fellow cave diver Rob Harper already had an inkling they might be needed. Now that official request had been made, they duly packed, and headed for London Heathrow where they caught the 21.30 GMT flight for Thailand.
The team augmented their equipment with gear borrowed from the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation. Volunteers in the DCRO had prepared, tested and packed four 'Heyphones'. This is a specialist cave radio system that can transmit hundreds of metres through solid rock, and which will allow radio communication between the surface and cave. A number of British Police armed response and road policing sections kindly relayed the equipment across the country and delivered it to the departing cave divers.
The role of British cave rescue divers
The Thai authorities remain in full control of this rescue effort.
Cave diving rescues requires specialist skills and equipment - this includes the ability to conduct cave dives in low visibility conditions and in small passages. The UK team have therefore been supporting and working alongside the Thai rescuers.
British cavers have a long history of overseas cave exploration and surveying, and this is certainly the case for Thailand. Brits have helped catalogue, survey and describe a considerable number of Thai caves over several years. Many British cavers, including specialist cave divers, who are active on such expeditions, also serve as volunteers in cave rescue teams across Britain and Ireland. They bring with them valuable knowledge of the layout of overseas cave systems.
Stanton and Volanthen are experts in low-visibility cave dives within small passages. British Cave Rescue Council
International rescues and expeditions
Rick Stanton MBE and John Volanthen are a natural choice for this rescue. Both men have dived together for at least 14 years and conducted several expeditions, rescues and body recoveries together. Both are competent, highly accomplished caver divers who have set achievements within a number of major cave systems around Europe.
We've got a job to do. John Volanthen
The third team member – Rob Harper – has done a lot of caving in Thailand. In fact he had only just returned from a caving trip in the country, so his local knowledge will be invaluable to Rick and John.
Cuetzalan Rescue, March 2004
In March 2004 the Combined Services Caving Association conducted a sporting adventure trip to explore Cuetzalan in Mexico. The cavers had expected the trip to take 36 hours. However un-forecast rain had flooded a low-lying section of the cave and they were now trapped in 'Cueva Alpazat'. The team was well prepared – they had an underground camp, food, sleeping bags and a Heyphone.
Rick Stanton and Jason Mallinson were flown in and the operation to safely dive out all the cavers took about nine hours.
Galway, September 2011
In September 2011 Polish cave diver Artur Kozlowski died while exploring Ireland’s Kiltartan system, north of Gort in southern Galway. At the time Kozlowski held the record for the deepest penetration of any cave complex in Britain or Ireland. When he failed to return when planned, the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation organised a series of searches.
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were flown in as part of an inter-governmental request. The British experts worked with the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation and the Garda, to recover Kozlowski's body.
Pozo Azul, September 2010
In September 2010 Jason Mallinson led a team to dive the unexplored Pozo Azul cave system in Spain. The dive team comprised of Jason, Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and Rene Houben.
The dive took two-and-a-half days and broke the previous world record dive of 4.8 miles (7,800mt / 25,591 ft). Jason Mallinson and his team dived 5.5 miles (8,825mt / 28,953ft) into a cave. The dive was likened to climbing Everest.
“You don’t get scared. But you are permanently conscious of your equipment. If the slightest thing goes wrong then you are in a position where you might never be coming back.” Jason Mallinson
Ardeche Gorges, October 2012
On Sunday 3 October 2012 cave explorer Eric Establie entered the Ardeche Gorges underground tunnel complex to survey the cave. There had been no contact from Establie on the following day and rescuers were concerned that if he is trapped in an air pocket he would only have 24 hours to live.
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were asked to go to Ardeche Gorge, France to lead a rescue attempt and find Establie. After a very dramatic and determined eight-day rescue mission the divers found Eric Establie's body trapped by a silt avalanche.
Princess Alexandra subsequently presented the duo with the Royal Humane Society award at Buckingham Palace for their efforts.
The thing about cave-diving is that it is such a low-key sport. The people who do it are often quite understated, and certainly don't want to be up on any kind of pedestal, me included. Rick Stanton
Plura Cave, February 2014
On 7 February 2014, a two-line report was posted on the forum, Rebreather World, advising of a Norwegian diving incident: "Sadly, two divers died in the caves of Plura yesterday. They ran into problems at ~130m. Three team mates made it back to the surface and [sic] was taken to the chamber. The three divers are OK."
The Norwegian authorities planned an official recovery operation of the two bodies. They called in Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and Jason Mallinson. The team accessed the cave and dived the accident site to survey it. It was found that one of the victims could not be readily freed and in fact he blocked access to the second victim.
"It was evident that it was going to be quite a protracted affair, lots of dives, down deep and cold—and that was really beyond our remit," said Rick Stanton. "The only alternative was to perform the traverse from Plura all over again, and thus gain access to the victims from the other side."
The team deemed the process was too risky with the potential that a rescuer might also have a fatal dive. The Norwegian police called off the recovery. Plura Cave remained closed. A secret plan was subsequently hatched and executed by a small team of Finnish divers and the two bodies were recovered.
'Rick Stanton, John Volanthen' and Rob Harper are working in Thailand in a voluntary capacity.
Stanton and Volanthen have dived flooded passages and laid a guide line as they travelled through the system. They have been supported by a large team of Thai Navy SEAL team divers and divers from Australia and the USA who are ferrying in air cylinders and establishing air supply dumps.
A rescue mission like this cannot happen without huge levels of support from the word go. It will always take a great number to get a few to the known end, but the reward is always felt by the whole team. Chris Jewel
“They are diving daily, for long periods, in very challenging and hazardous conditions and need full rest and recuperation in the short time between dives,” a BCRC spokesman said. “Clear judgment and physiological recovery are essential for their personal safety and effectiveness in the operation to rescue the boys.”
On Monday 2 July at 16.30 news broke in the UK that Rick Stanton and John Volanthen had found the 12 boys and their coach alive and well in a relatively small, dry air space south of the Pattaya Beach area of Tham Luang Nang Non Cave. It was estimated that the group were approximately 200mt / 656ft south of the underground Pattaya Beach landmark.
It is therefore thought that the group are around 1.2 miles / 2 km into the cave and somewhere between 800mt - 1km / 2,624ft - 3,280 ft below the surface.
The moment the group are found
This is the transcript of the conversation between Rick Stanton, John Volanthen and the trapped children.
Rick: How many of you [are there]?
Rick: Thirteen? Brilliant!
Rick: There's two of us.... we had to dive.
Rick: We're coming, it's ok. Many people are coming. We are the first.
Children ask what day it is
Rick: Monday. One week and Monday. You have been here 10 days. You are very strong, very strong.
Rescuers urge them to go back from edge of water. Divers then swim over to their side.
John: That is just the most amazing timing.
Children: What day you come help me?
Rick: We hope tomorrow.
John: Navy Seals will come tomorrow with food, doctor and everything. Today you have a light? We will give you more lights.
A lot of rummaging around and darkness.
Rick: We are happy too (in response to inaudible comment)
Children: Where you come from?
John: England, UK
What happens next?
This is a challenging rescue and it has not been helped because it is Monsoon season. The weather factor cannot be under estimated. If it stays dry and the cave system is successfully pumped clear of water, this will positively aid the rescue.
The group could be dived out, however this is a high risk solution. It is a very long swim of 90 odd minutes and counting, in cold water, tight passageways and very poor / nil visibility.
"Although water levels have dropped, the diving conditions remain difficult. Any attempt to dive the boys and their coach out will not be taken lightly because there are significant technical challenges and risks to consider," stated a British Cave Rescue Council Spokesman.
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen described this open circuit scuba dive as "gnarly". Between them they have over 60 years of hardcore, extreme cave diving experience under their belt. In this instance "gnarly" is being used in a very understated British way, and can be translated into every day language as "pretty dire, awful, difficult, unpleasant, grim and awkward."
How can you help?
The Guardian has published an accurate editorial on volunteering. The article states that in the UK thousands of people volunteer (they are not paid) on search and rescue teams, and do so largely unsung.
"There are around 1,000 volunteer cave rescuers in the UK, and 4,700 volunteer lifeboat crew members. In 2015, more than 1,720 people helped in mountain rescue operations. Lowland and coastguard cliff rescue teams are even less well known. But together their impact is powerful. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution says its volunteers have saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824."
Charitable rescue organisations such as the British Cave Rescue Council are generally not that well funded. If you feel that you wish to make a practical difference, please consider donating to this charity. The money will be used to support future cave rescues, ie purchase valuable equipment such as the Heyphones.