Lead Diver From 2018 Thailand Cave Rescue Talks Triumphant Recovery
- John Volanthen helped lead the cave rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach in July 2018.
- He spoke with Insider to discuss the harrowing rescue mission ahead of the release of “Thirteen Lives.”
- This is Volanthen’s story, as told to reporter Erin Snodgrass.
When cave diver John Volanthen arrived in Northern Thailand in June of 2018, he was preparing for the worst.
Twelve members of a youth soccer team and their assistant coach had been lost for days in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave after heavy rains flooded the system, trapping the young boys deep within following a post-practice excursion.
Previous efforts to locate the group had been unsuccessful due to rising water levels and strong currents, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that the boys, aged eleven to sixteen, would be found alive.
But on July 2 — more than a week after the boys disappeared — Volanthen and his diving partner, Richard Stanton, discovered the group more than two miles from the entrance on an elevated rock. All thirteen of them were alive.
Finding them, however, was the easy part. Now Volanthen, Stanton, and a team of Thai Navy SEAL divers and rescuers had to figure out how to get them out.
A rescue mission was ultimately agreed upon in which two divers would accompany each boy, guided by rope. For the underwater sections, the boys and their coach were heavily sedated to keep them calm as the experienced divers pulled them out of the complex. It took three full days to get the entire team out.
The mission was a triumph. All twelve boys and their coach were safely returned to their families.
Volanthen spoke with Insider last week while promoting his new online leadership course with EdApp by SafetyCulture and the release of Ron Howard’s feature film “Thirteen Lives,” and discussed the details of his most famous dive.
In his own words, here is Volanthen’s story.
This as-told to essay is based on a conversation with John Volanthen. It has been edited for length and clarity.
We were the people on the ground that had the expertise and were able to steer things.
We were very much in the background initially, offering help, suggestions, and sometimes simply doing the right thing. We weren’t at the front telling everybody what to do. We were very much more in the thick of it, trying to work out where our influence and where our skills could be used the most to get the greatest effect.
We were told to expect to find the boys at Pattaya Beach — the area of the cave known as Pattaya Beach — and they weren’t there.
I was certainly expecting to find children’s bodies in the water. That was something that I’d very much prepared myself to find. And we did find a number of pieces of pipe that were floating in the water, this nylon pipe that I was certain was a t-shirt or a piece of clothing attached to a child.
On the day we found them, we were at the point we should have turned around, based on the amount of air we used from our diving cylinders.
But I had a sixth sense that it was time to continue, and it was time to push on, and lay all of the line, or as much of the line as we could. And I remember being very aware that we were well beyond our safety margins. Rick and I have dived together for a great many years, and we had agreed to be completely reliant on the other to get ourselves out in the event of a problem.
Rick and I made a decision together to go forward to rely on each other in the event that either of us had a problem. There were years of experience and trust that had gone into that moment, and we went forward in complete agreement, both knowing that we could completely trust the other one.
And so, it just felt to me at that moment that it was the moment to push, and the moment to go on. And that’s what we did. And that was the day that we found the boys. There was just this sense of, “Now is the moment.”
When we found the boys we realized that if we did nothing, all of them would quite simply die very quickly.
There wasn’t a moment when we thought we wouldn’t attempt to bring the boys out, but we certainly made every effort to try and minimize the risks even though they were very high.
I remember very clearly when we were first going in to rescue the first set of boys, I couldn’t imagine how we could do this more than once. I thought, “Well, this is it. We’ll get four boys out, and that would be as many as we could manage.”
And then I remember thinking, that’s tomorrow’s problem. All I have to worry about today is getting out the boys that we are going in to bring back to the surface. If we can manage these four boys today, then tomorrow will take care of itself. We’ll deal with that when it arrives.
On that first day, it felt almost overwhelming, the responsibility and the difficulty we were facing. And I just decided that I would face that one day, take it as well as I could, and then kind of go from there.
Ultimately, we treated the boys as equipment, or albeit very valuable packages, and we brought them out literally as equipment.
For me, the evenings were what I used to take a break and reset. I don’t think it would’ve been possible to try and do three sets of rescues consecutively, it wouldn’t have been physically possible and it wasn’t possible from a logistical point of view either.
Certainly, we knew we needed those breaks in the evenings, not just to reset diving equipment and cylinders and refill cylinders and so on, but we needed that to reset mentally. So that’s why it took three days to bring the boys out, not just for logistical reasons, but because physically, I don’t think we could have turned around and gone back in again, certainly not three times.
There were so many groups and nationalities and organizations on site in Tham Luang who were all trying to rescue the children.
We were all working towards a common shared goal, which was to try and save the children, but with lots of different issues, such as national pride. Different organizations wanted to do things in certain ways. It was really difficult for us to try and navigate that and to try and pull everyone together, so that we were able to eventually create a team that was able to deliver the right solution.
That coming together of the different nationalities, the different organizations, that’s probably, out of the whole rescue, one of my proudest moments, that we were all able to work together as a team towards that common goal. Despite our differences, we were able to set aside enough of those differences that we could work together, make good decisions, and eventually rescue the boys.
The overall emotion at the end of the whole incident was simply relief.
I think we performed as well as could be expected. Nothing ever goes perfectly, but things had gone about as well as they could have.
I’ve been involved in a number of body recoveries where divers have unfortunately died even before we were aware of the incident. And I’ve always had to meet relatives afterwards, because they want to say, “Thank you.”
I find it very difficult to look at a relative, and say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because you can see how much it hurts, and how difficult it is for them. I was just relieved after the Thailand rescue that when we met the parents finally, we didn’t have to say “I’m sorry for your loss” to any parents.
We’d offered our services, we’d done our best and it turned out that we’d done okay, it was good enough.