Richard Stanton and John Volanthen

Richard Stanton and John Volanthen – Stanhope Gold Medal

On 23 Jun 2018 twelve young Thai footballers and their coach were trapped in the Tham Luang cave system in Northern Thailand, 2300 metres from the entrance when an early monsoon flooded their escape route. The alarm was raised and local and international rescue organisations were alerted. A British caver, Vernon Unsworth, who lived locally, joined the search, and also got the message to the British Cave Rescue Council who began preparations immediately. Six hours after the official Thai call was received Rob Harper, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen flew out of the UK. They met up with Vernon and entered the cave that evening for an exploratory dive. The following day Rick and John dived through three short completely flooded sections and found four Thai water pump engineers who had also been cut off by the rising floods. They carried out an immediate rescue, sharing their diving equipment and air supplies with the trapped men. This experience influenced the later decision that the boys would require sedation before being ferried out through much longer sumps.

Over the next few days they tested the dives but found the currents too strong, visibility too poor, and there were cables and debris in the caves. Rob and Vernon joined surface search teams looking for alternative access to the caves below. After a few days conditions had improved sufficiently and Rick and John risked another attempt, penetrating far further than before. Diving was extremely difficult against a strong current and visibility of about a metre, but they secured a guideline in place as they went. The following day the two divers again entered the cave and dived well beyond the point they had previously laid line to. They surfaced in a chamber to find the missing party of boys alive and marooned on a ledge above water level. They dived back to report the wonderful news. This dive was an exceptional feat of both courage and skill, pathfinding upstream against a very strong current in total darkness through contorted passages. Thai Navy SEAL team divers reached the boys the next day, four men staying in situ until the final rescue mission. Two days later Rick and John again dived to the boys taking lights, batteries and food. They found that the oxygen levels in the cave were severely depleted.

Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell arrived from the UK and the next day they dived through to the trapped party to take more supplies, and to familiarise themselves with the diving route. They brought back notes written on diving pads from the boys to their families. Tragically, later the same day, a Thai SEAL diver was killed when he ran out of air trying to set up a dump of air cylinders.

Joshua Bratchley, Connor Roe, and Jim Warny were the next to arrive from the UK and after much planning, preparation, and even rehearsals with children in swimming pools, the green light was given for the rescue mission to start. The plan relied on a relay of divers. The first stage consisted of Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, Chris Jewell, Jason Mallinson and an Australian diver/doctor who reached the boys, dressed them in diving suits and masks, and then sedated them. Taking charge of a boy each the divers swam them out, re-sedating when necessary, through a grueling course to the handover point where the next set of divers took over. During the unsubmerged parts the boys were carried on stretchers to the next sump. Connor Roe and Joshua Bratchley and local divers manned the second stage. Connor surfaced in safety with the first boy after a seven-hour operation, the other three were safe after nine hours as the relay delivered live but unconscious boys. This process continued and each day four more boys were rescued. On the final day the last four boys and their coach were brought out. Jason Mallinson made the dive with a boy twice that final day. With renewed air supplies the four remaining Thai SEAL divers came out once the last boy had left.

This was undoubtedly a most extraordinary cave rescue that involved many thousands of rescue workers and support staff, complex technical and medical problems, and diplomatic discussions. At the sharp end were the BCRC cave divers who showed extraordinary levels of physical and moral courage.