Before leaving Thailand, one of the members of the British dive team that helped save 12 boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave sent some friendly words of advice to the recuperating rescuees.
“We’re very glad we could get you out alive. And be careful in the future,” Jason Mallison, a diver for the British Cave Rescue Council, said when asked by reporters in Thailand if there was anything he wanted to tell the rescued members of the Wild Boar soccer team.
Mallison and his British diving colleague, John Volanthen, were given medals of honor and certificates of appreciation by Thai military officials Thursday before they flew back to Great Britain.
“Great work and we really appreciate it,” a Thai military official said as he bestowed on the men the souvenir medals during a ceremony at Chiang Rai airport. “You’re always welcome to come back anytime. In our country, you have so many friends.”
Volanthen and another British diver, Richard Stanton, were the first rescuers to locate the boys and their coach in the Tham Luang Nang Non Cave in northern Thailand.
On July 2, Volanthen and Stanton were stringing a safety rope through a flooded area of the cave when they popped up in a cavern and, to their surprise, saw all 12 boys and their coach huddled on a small beach in the darkness of the cave.
The Thai Navy SEALs posted a video on Facebook showing the group when they were first found. In the video, Volanthen is heard talking to the group, telling them at the time that they had been in the cave for 10 days and that many rescuers were coming to save them.
“You are very strong,” Volanthen told the group.
When Volanthen, 50, arrived at Heathrow Airport in London later Thursday, he was greeted by reporters and cheered by people who recognized him. A tearful woman, who said she was from Thailand, presented Volanthen with a box of candy and thanked him for his work in the life-saving mission that captured the attention of the world.
“I’m glad it worked out,” Volanthen told the woman.
Pushing a cart stacked with his luggage, Volanthen paused to speak with reporters about the rescue mission.
“We’re not heroes,” Volanthen said, despite headlines in the British newspapers describing him and the other international rescuers as just that. “What we do is very calculating, very calm. It’s quite the opposite” of being a hero.
“We were very, very pleased it worked out quite so well. The results speak for themselves,” he added.
Volanthen praised the entire international rescue team, which included 90 of the best scuba divers from around the world, for saving the group, who became trapped when monsoon rains struck on June 23 and flooded their exit.
Rescuers pulled off the miraculous life-saving mission despite daunting odds over the course of three dramatic days, successfully completing the operation on Tuesday when the last four boys and their coach were removed from the cave.
“We’re just very happy that the boys are out and safe,” Volanthen said.
He said “relief is the word I would use” to describe the moment he and Stanton found the group.
“We were pleased and very relieved that they were alive,” Volanthen said. “But I think at that point we realized the enormity of the situation and that’s perhaps why it took awhile to get them all out.”
He credited Australian medic and diver Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris and three Thai Navy SEALs for staying with the boys and coach deep in the cave and keeping them calm and encouraged while plans were being hatched to get them out.
“I think Dr. Harry, the Australian doctor, he’s very good,” Volanthen said. “He’s got a very good bedside manner. He’s got a very bouncy Australian accent and they [the rescued boys] seemed to find that quite relaxing and reassuring. So, that seemed to work.”
Volanthen also expressed condolences to the family of volunteer diver Saman Gunan, the retired Thai Navy SEAL who lost consciousness during an overnight operation delivering extra air tanks inside the cave and was confirmed dead on Friday.
“It’s an absolute tragedy,” he said. “It’s kind of bittersweet for what’s otherwise been an excellent operation.”