Thai Cave Rescue Account

Over the summer the world was gripped by a drama unfolding in the caves of Thailand, when a group of twelve children from the Wild Boards football team were trapped underground by rising floodwaters.  They were exploring the Tham Luang cave complex in the Chang Rai district of northern Thailand in the mountains bordering Myanmar when unexpected rainfall caught them out.  This was on June 23rd.

A British Caver living in the area, Vern Unsworth, recommended to the Thai authorities that British cave diving expertise would be needed to have the best change of a successful rescue.  The British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) was approached for assistance.

One of our volunteers, Graham Smith, is part of the Midlands Cave Rescue Organisation and was asked to help out with the logistics of the operation, and this is his account of the rescue.

In the UK, the BCRC acts as an umbrella organisation for the 15 British Cave Rescue teams. One of those is ” Midlands Cave Rescue Organisation”, of which I am both Treasurer and a call out warden. Two close friends Mike Clayton and Emma Porter are also MCRO members and BCRC volunteers, (the BCRC and 15 rescue teams are all made up of volunteers).

On the 2nd June the team was found by two divers; Rick Stanton (diving officer for MCRO) and Jon Volanthen. The world felt relieved and amazed they had been found alive but to anyone familiar with caving and, in particular, cave-diving the next question was “how the hell can you get them out?”. The group was approx. 2.6km from the entrance in chamber nine and there were eight flooded sections (or sumps) to negotiate in order to reach them. The total dive length was approximately 1.5 km and the divers reported visibility in the region of eighteen inches.

On the evening of Weds 4th June I received a phone call from Mike advising me that he was flying out to Thailand the next morning, to assist with surface support to the dive team. Emma was helping the BCRC run logistics in the UK to help get requested kit and personnel out to Thailand as the situation and plan unfolded further. Could I help Emma with the logistics? Fortunately, my employer is very understanding and allowed me to take time away from work.

The next six days then became a huge emotional roller coaster as the plans to dive the boys out were devised and put into practice. The sad loss of the Thai Navy Seal Saman Kunan served as a real reality check. In total the BCRC deployed a total of seven divers to Thailand along with three surface support staff.

Back in the UK I was one of seven people handling the logistics side of things. I was involved in helping to get equipment and Cave divers rounded up and onto Thai airlines flights from Heathrow. I also helped in keeping a channel of communication to the team in Thailand open helping them with requests and decisions, along with keeping a log book to record what was done when and why. The response we received from the BCRC member teams when requested to help collect people and equipment and turn them round to get back to Heathrow was overwhelming. Companies across the U.K. and Europe went out of their way to help where possible.

We had some fantastic support from the Thai embassy in getting equipment and personnel on planes out of Heathrow. One example is that on Saturday 7th at 2:20pm there was an urgent request from our team in Thailand to ship out a further two positive pressure full face masks to them. Two were identified as being available, one in Bristol and one in Cardiff but one needed servicing. By 4pm they were both in Cardiff, serviced and ready to go but needed to be in Heathrow for 6:30pm for the last flight out. They made the trip in 1:55mins! A caver and his car was blue lighted under police escort all the way down the M4 after the police helicopter we were promised  had to be diverted elsewhere.

Over the course of the six days sleep became  a luxury due to the time difference, Thailand is 6hrs ahead of GMT, so when we were thinking about sleep, the team on the ground were just starting to send through plans and requests for the day ahead. Fifty minutes sleep was managed on the Saturday night before the rescue plan began in earnest.

The rescue plan worked brilliantly and is testament to the sheer skill and commitment of the divers involved. Weather permitting, we knew they team could get them out, but nothing was certain they would be rescued alive. In some respects, as each successful day concluded, the pressure mounted as hope and expectation grew. So, on day three, when the last of the five surfaced it was a fantastic moment. But we still had the last four Navy Seals underground who had stayed with the children. Just prior to the last one surfacing we had a message that the pumps had tripped, which caused us some uncomfortable minutes until we got the message that everyone was out safe! The pumping operations had made a big difference as far as chamber three and when the pumps tripped the water was rising 10cm in 10 minutes.

On Friday 13th we travelled down to Heathrow to collect the Team from Heathrow and prepare them for the worldwide interest A press conference had been arranged to try and manage the situation! I’m hiding at the far side of the group holding my neck in thoughtful pose!

From left to right: Graham Smith, Mike Clayton , Gary Mitchell , Emma Porter, Toby Hamnett, Chris Jewell, Tony Haigh , Vern Unsworth , Peter Dennis , the UK Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Theresa May, His Excellency Mr Pisanu Suvanajata, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand, John Volanthen , Josh Bratchley , Rob Harper, Bill Whitehouse, Heather Simpson and Connor Roe.


On Tuesday 24th July we were invited to 10 Downing street to meet the PM. Not all the team were able to make it sadly.  Arriving at our allotted time of 15:30 apprehension and nerves were quickly put to bed. Once passed security on the gates, the whole team were very welcoming and put us at ease. It turned out that not only the PM, but staff had been looking forward to meeting us! We spent a very pleasant two hours in number 10 drinking tea and eating cakes, having had a tour of some of the key rooms, we were even allowed to sit at the cabinet room table. The Prime Minister met with us for around twenty-five minutes talking about our experiences and trying to convince our rather humble band that we were indeed hero’s. A couple of the team had taken their children and she was very accommodating in having a couple of selfies that should put paid to any teachers doubts as to the reason for none attendance at school!

BCRC vice chair Bill Whitehouse being introduced to the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

In addition the Thai Ambassador is hosting a reception at his house in London for the team. The Thai authorities really have been most gracious in expressing their gratitude for what the worldwide community helped them achieve. Also, later in the year the Speaker of the House of Commons is opening up his rooms at Westminster to host a reception for us and Westminster to recognise what was achieved both by the team and also the wider community of suppliers and employers etc.

All in all life has been both busy but very rewarding in recent weeks. It all seems a bit surreal to of been involved in such a successful global event. From the inside view I can honestly say it was heart-warming to see the collaboration that went on across the world in these seemingly troubled times. On a personal level I’ve simply helped by utilising my skills which are an offshoot of my hobby! Being a caver, you quickly realise that the only people who can help you if something goes wrong are your fellow cavers. Invariably that leads to getting involved with your local rescue, the love of being underground and desire to help others in trouble underground is something that any caver or miner can equate too.

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