Rick Stanton MBE is a British civilian widely regarded as “one of the most accomplished cave divers”. Cave diving is the activity of exploring flooded cave systems with scuba gear for recreation or scientific exploration. Occasionally, people are caught in rising waters and conditions can quickly become life threatening. Stanton is on the short list of divers called in when these situations occur and has traveled the world performing daring rescues.
One such call was in 2018 when a youth soccer team was trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chain Rai province in Thailand. Stanton and his dive partner John Volanthen soon found themselves in the global spotlight with 13 lives at stake. His incredible journey to this milestone is charted in the documentary The Rescue as well as his new book Aquanaut. Below, the retired firefighter tells the story of the team’s first discovery; it appears as told to Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I was 18 when I first saw cave diving, in a documentary called The underground Eiger. I had always been drawn to the water as a child, and it seemed like a way to bring technicality and purpose to the sport of diving. Descend into the depths to navigate routes that could not be traced or had never been attempted before. To me, it seemed like a perfect form of exploration.
My first cave dive, or what we call a freshman trip, was while I was in college. I had built it so much in my head and prepared for it that I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I was afraid that I would end up getting bored each time, but it turned out that all I needed was a harder dive. I spent years chasing the toughest dives I could find and pushing my limits.
I developed my skills over the years both individually and with a team of guys who had the same passion. Eventually, we went further than anyone with little to no preparation. We are able to do this not only because of our diving skills better than anyone, but because of our intimate knowledge of the caves and how they work. Our reputation started to grow in the community, with all the great dives we were doing.
Our first call for help came in 2004, when we were called to an incident where six British soldiers were trapped in a cave in Mexico. There’s still no confirmation on what exactly they were doing there, it could have been a training exercise. These guys were experienced cavers, but you learn that these situations can happen to anyone. Even though they were soldiers, they were still very stressed about the situation. But we managed to get them out, and that started our rescue work.
Not every mission I’ve been taken on has ended happily. Caves form largely due to water flow, they often contain rivers and the rapid changes in water elevation can surprise even experienced divers. When people are trapped underwater in a cave, there are also many situations where the ending isn’t very happy. That’s when a rescue attempt unfortunately turns into a bodily retrieval.
Being part of as many operations as we have, we feel a responsibility when these disasters occur. That’s how me and my dive partner John Volanthen felt when we heard about the young football team stuck in Thailand. We were so confident that we could play a part in rescuing these children that we contacted the UK government to contact the Thai government on our behalf. At the same time, Vernon Unsworth, who was one of the first divers on site, suggested our names because he knew our reputation. The messages overlapped and they finally decided to let us in.
Six hours later we were on a plane to Thailand. The rain was still falling when we arrived. They drove us to the site, where they gave us a hut to sleep with a double bed and a single bed. One of the guys who was with us, an older gentleman named Robert Harper, put his bags on the single bed which left John and I to share. It was a smart decision on his part. The rain continued until the next day, which was very worrying given the circumstances.
The base of operations was total chaos. Cameras were pushed into our faces as soon as we got there, which we did our best to ignore. So many people were trying to help, hoping to volunteer for the effort, but there was no infrastructure to maintain it all. The families were there all the time, and I made a conscious effort not to look them in the eye, but I couldn’t help knowing they were there. I was there for a specific task and I needed to be able to concentrate. I learned to put blinders on when I need to. And of course there was also a serious military presence.
The Thai Navy SEALs weren’t very keen on seeing us at first. They hadn’t had much success with their initial attempts, and the idea of a few old Englishmen coming to their territory to take over the rescue didn’t sit well with many of them. There was a language barrier which made it difficult and they were unaware of our previous successes. There was also a deployment of United States Air Force personnel from a special tactical squadron based in Japan. They were there as advisors to help the Thai military coordinate the rescue, and ended up being crucial in helping us do it.
Conditions in the cave only got worse, with continuous rain, there was just more flooding, forcing teams further and further. Our efforts had to start further back than the others, but all we could do was one soldier forward. I had been caving in Thailand before, at one time as a civilian caving expert for a British military caving expedition to explore another part of the country. But it was my first time diving in this particular cave and the visibility was very bad.
Luckily John and I are very used to diving in poor visibility. The first full day we were in the country, we were the only ones diving in the cave. That day, we encountered four workers who were trapped by the flood waters. They had rested in one of the alcoves and had missed the evacuation. The authorities were not even aware of their disappearance at the time. They were in the third bedroom, which was relatively close compared to where the football team was.
Officials were telling us the water was rising a meter every half hour, which was quite unsettling for the rescue efforts. The earth was moving fast, so we chose to bring out the four workers. This moment was quite crucial, because it gave us credibility with outsiders who allowed us to carry out rescues. Once the Thai Navy SEALs saw that we knew what we were doing, the working relationship between all of us was much better.
It was good, because the situation in the cave did not get any easier as we continued to advance in the darkness. I could see a maximum of six inches in front of me. I guess you could say technically I haven’t really seen the cave yet. But I can tell you that it’s not a maze as some describe it, it’s a winding tunnel that is complicated a lot by erosion features. People would find it hard to believe that we would walk through the cave system in pitch black. It’s not as simple as feeling around, but you have to be bold in how you move.
This is where the experience comes in. I learned to feel the current of the water and how to navigate the channel. The current was so strong that we had to stay on the ground, digging our hands into the dirt to pull ourselves forward. Our hands were chopped off at the end of each day and our fingernails broke, but we kept going. Hope came when we discovered there was more airspace between the flooded sections than we had been led to believe.
It was the first time we had real hope, but it’s not that we wouldn’t lose it again. The first morning after we rescued these workers, rainwater made diving impossible. The cave continued to flood, preventing us from entering day after day. This negativity was only compounded by the fact that we weren’t sleeping or eating very well. I felt a lot of attrition on my side. There was a moment when we thought the level wouldn’t drop at all, and it might be time to start thinking about going home. It was a pretty dark moment.
I must pay tribute to the Thai Navy SEALs. Even though they didn’t know much about cave diving, they weren’t going to give up. They kept trying to move on, even when it was unreasonable. They started that line laying process, and once we saw that, we came back there, took over for them, and were able to use our experience to push the effort further.
That’s what we did, and finally we got to the boys. The dive lasted three hours of fighting against the current. We couldn’t believe it when we looked up and saw them all gathered on the rock. There are millions of people who have seen this music video from the moment we found them, and it’s an amazing feel-good moment, but folks have to keep in mind that we didn’t know what that we were going to find. The thing is, we accepted the mission knowing there was a chance we’d find 13 dead bodies floating in the water when we reached them. So the shock and joy you hear is real.
A lot of people think that’s my voice you first hear on the video of when we found the kids, but it was actually John’s. I’m in the background counting them, until I finally say, “They’re all alive!” Each of them was still walking and could look us in the eye. They were so placid and calm. Even when we handed out food to them, they had to stand, but they took it so peacefully.
The euphoria of this discovery went away pretty quickly, because it was then a question of how we were going to get them out. This whole team became our responsibility at that point, and we had no idea what we were going to do. The journey to get them out of there was even crazier than the path we took to find them.
This series is produced in partnership with the Great Adventures Podcast hosted by Charles Thorp. Discover new and past episodes on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Past guests include Bear Grylls, Andrew Zimmern, Chris Burkard, NASA astronauts, Navy SEALs and more.
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