One of the British divers who spearheaded the daring mission to save 12 young Thai boys and their football coach from deep inside a submerged cave played down his heroics as he arrived back from Thailand on Thursday.
John Volanthen was one of two British caving experts who dived through underwater passages with little visibility to first find, and then extract, the young football team who were cowering in a dark, wet cavern for 18 days after being trapped by rapidly rising floodwaters.
“We were very pleased and we were very relieved that they were all alive but I think at that point we realised the enormity of the situation and that’s perhaps why it took a while to get them all out,” he told Sky News as he arrived at Heathrow airport.
The IT consultant in his 40s added: “We are not heroes. What we do is very calculating, very calm. It’s quite the opposite.”
There were tears of joy in Thailand on Tuesday evening when the final five survivors were successfully evacuated from the cave after a treacherous three-day rescue operation to free all 13.
Thai cave rescue: How it’s being done
But Mr Volanthen said that the death last Friday of Saman Kuman, 38, a former Thai Navy Seal diver, who suffocated while replenishing air tanks, had brought a “bittersweet” taste to an otherwise “excellent” operation.
Mr Volanthen is understood to have returned home to Bristol to be reunited with his young son. Seven other Britons, five of them divers, involved in the rescue are due to arrive home early on Friday.
Bill Whitehouse, vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said that psychological help would be offered to cope with the aftermath of the underwater drama.
“Some of them have been on pretty hairy recovery dives before in various countries and reading between the lines, the actual dives in this case were not particularly deep and nothing too extraordinary.
“But it was what they faced, and what they had to do in there, which was extraordinary,” he told The Telegraph.
Thai cave rescue | Read more
In Thailand, the young boys, aged 11-16, and their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, 25, are still in isolation wards in hospital while doctors them for any infections contracted in the cave. Their mental health is also being evaluated.
Experts believe the children will bounce back while Mr Chanthawong may struggle to cope with guilt. In a letter last weekend he apologised to the boys’ parents for leading them into danger. They replied saying “please don’t blame yourself”.
Prayuth Jetiyanukorn, the abbot at the Phrathat Doi Wao temple where the coach worked as a concierge, said on Thursday that he had a strong bond with his ‘Wild Boars’ football team and would have kept them “calm and relaxed” inside the cave.
“I was afraid that he might think I was going to blame him so I sent a letter of comfort to him in hospital,” said the abbot. “I hope he will come back to work and resume his normal life.”
Thailand cave rescue, in pictures
Mr Prayuth had heard from Mr Chanthawong’s aunt that he had worried about who would care for his grandmother while he was trapped underground. Every night after work he travels to her home across the nearby Burmese border.
But good news may be on the horizon for the coach and three of his team who are currently stateless after the Thai government said it would find a way to provide them passports.
Many children in the crime-ridden, impoverished region are brought to Thailand for a better education but their lack of documents leaves them in legal limbo and vulnerable to deportation.
Among them is Adul Sam, 14, who played the critical role of conversing with the British divers in hesitant English in a video that showed the remarkable moment they discovered the missing group.
His Burmese parents dropped off him off at a church in the border town of Mae Sai eight years ago, asking the pastor and his wife to educate him.
Click Here: racing club camiseta
Piyarat Yodsuwan, his class teacher, said his family background had driven him to succeed. “He got a chance to learn and so he is very dedicated,” she said. “He is humble and kind, quiet but also a leader,” she said.
His classmates had cried prayed every day for his safe return, she said. “When he comes back to school, we’re going to throw him a party.”