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Host: Welcome to our season finale of Out Alive. We’ll be taking a short break, but we’ll be back in September for our next season. But first, some words about our sponsor.
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In late June of 2018, a dozen boys ages 11 to 16 from the Wild Boars Football Club and their 25-year-old assistant coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Northern Thailand. Tham Luang is located within a national park and is open to the public though, not year-round. At the entrance, a sign is posted in Thai and English stating the cave is subject to annual flooding and closed to visitors from July through November. The day the soccer team entered had started out clear and sunny, and the boys were looking for something to do to fill their time between practice and a teammate’s birthday party planned for that evening.
Soon after the boys entered the cave, it began to rain. When the time of the party came, the head coach started receiving worried messages from parents saying that their sons hadn’t come home.
Out Alive Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight-for-my-life situation. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house. I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and I couldn’t do anything. Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst-case scenario happens to you. There was no way we would find anybody alive.
Rick Stanton: You’re fighting against the current. You can’t swim against it. You have to pull on the floor, pull on the walls, dig in your fingers into the lines, and pull yourself along blindly with your head into the current. The first person who’s laying a line so that you can follow it, get your way back and make your way to that point again, quickly on subsequent events. Also feeling around, imagine this: feeling around you in case there are bodies floating around. So that’s, that’s a hell of a stress doing all those things.
Host: That’s Richard Stanton, who goes by Rick. He’s describing the conditions in Tham Luang cave during one of the most remarkable search-and-rescue missions ever recorded. You probably remember hearing about the story of the Thai soccer team.
The fate of a dozen youth soccer players… Their saga was one of those stories that transcended borders. …Millions are following the desperate search of a cave that flooded with a team inside. For more than two weeks in 2018, the entire world was gripped by nonstop news coverage of the effort to rescue 12 boys and their coach from deep inside the cave where they were trapped by rising flood water. The frantic search for 12 missing boys and their football coach using thermal drones while hundreds of searchers… I feel I have just lost my heart when I found just his bag, mobile phone and his shoes… A distraught mom calling out for her son.
Host: Rick is a former British firefighter. For decades he has pursued an unusual hobby that made him one of the only people anywhere who would have a chance to save the lives of the boys and their coach, which is why when the team went missing, he was among the first people outside Thailand to hear about it.
Rick Stanton: I had a Thai friend who lived really close to where the rescue was taking place. And she rang me up and told me about a party of school boys lost in a cave. I thought that people get lost in caves all the time, so that’s probably no big deal, they’ll eventually find their way out. And then she said, “No, they’re trapped by floodwater.”
And that immediately made me think, “Well, we actually have amongst the world as much experience or more than anyone about recovering and rescuing people from flooded caves.”
Host: Rick is a pioneer cave diver, and one of the most accomplished people in the history of the high-risk sport. He’s explored caves that have seen fewer visitors than the moon.
He’s also skilled in the extremely rare practice of cave rescue, and yet for someone with such specialized talent and unique experiences, he’s casual and confident. The remarkable events that took place inside Tham Luang spurred countless news stories and two documentary films, but none of the accounts are as revealing as Rick’s own take on what happened. Earlier this year, he published Aquanaut: The Inside Story of the Thai Cave Rescue with Karen Dealy. The book details not only the incredible story of the operation, but also Rick’s fascinating journey into the world of cave diving.
If you really want to understand what went down inside Tham Luang, you need to know how Rick became the ideal person to lead the rescue. And to do that, you need to start at the very beginning of his story.
Rick Stanton: I would describe it as having a very ordinary childhood in a middle-class family. My father worked in a bank and was often away.
I had a normal education. I was exceptionally shy. I didn’t really talk amongst groups. I had a close number of friends, but only a small number. I was quite happy occupying myself, and I’d go off fishing with a few friends. I think the main thing I recall from my parents was they never told me not to do anything. They just allowed me to do it and said, “Think what you are doing or mind what you’re doing.”
And I quite like that. You see children now always, “Don’t do that. Stop that, come walk back from the edge.” We weren’t given those instructions. We were just allowed to think it out for ourselves. One of the things that was consistent throughout my school years was that I had a very unruffled nature.
And that obviously holds you in good stead with cave diving. So possibly predisposed to some of the facets that you need to be able to go cave diving. I grew up in the sixties and seventies. At that time, Jacques Cousteau, the famous diver, had a series on television. And I was very much interested in them.
I was good at swimming. I was what you’d call a “water person,” but then when I was 18, there was a documentary on the television specifically about cave diving in England. And something about that totally resonated with me. I just identified with them. They were not only diving, but they were diving with a purpose and the purpose was to explore.
And as a concept, I’d never really engaged with that. I thought exploring was something that had all been done in the early 20th century. And there wasn’t much to go at, but here, these people were exploring on their own back door in Yorkshire, in England. And so that opened up a whole set of opportunities, which I wanted to pursue.
Host: In Aquanaut, Rick describes his youth being marked by a search for something he didn’t have the word for. What his teachers mistook for apathy was actually an economy of effort that would later serve him well when he got into cave diving. After watching that documentary about the British cave explorers titled “The Underground Eiger,” Rick became obsessed with the sport. And when he got to college, he found others just like him.
Rick Stanton: I went to university, and so I joined the caving club. They were similar ages: 18, 19, and 22. And we all went caving together. There weren’t any necessarily “grownups” with us. And we all learned the principles of caving and what we were doing together.
It was quite a slow learning process, but I think it gets you further. All the lessons are hard-won. The people that I was at the university caving club with all those years ago are still very good friends. And it just so happened that even the weekend that the boys went into the cave in Thailand, I was away with this group of friends that I’d forged a friendship with more than 40 years prior to that. It is unusual for people to start caving or spelunking, as it’s known in America, and then want to progress to cave diving. And that isn’t a natural progression. Most people are happy just to go down the dry caves, but I knew where I wanted to go. And again, like everything else, I just did it slowly and had some very minimal equipment to start with and started just going everywhere. I could gain experience without equipment before progressing further and further, I knew that I’d enjoy being underwater, just putting your face under and realizing you can breathe is an amazing thing.
I think it all goes back to that freedom in the dry, terrestrial world. You’re constrained to being walking along the floor, but underwater it’s a 3-D environment. You can float around or pass it. You can see a hole in the ceiling and like to fly up to it. People might have in their dreams, flying around a house, you can literally do that underwater.
That was one of the appeals. And then, after 10-15 years, we were starting to make a name for ourselves exploring places in Yorkshire, exactly what was done on that documentary, going to places where no one had been before. We extended our horizons into Europe, and we were making explorations in caves that were right at the top level of what could be done or even beyond. We were pushing the boundaries of what people thought could be done, or in fact what people thought couldn’t be done. And of course, I think it needs to be said that cave diving accidents are normally quite fatal.
So we were then called upon to resolve various cave diving accidents and got a name for ourselves there.
Host: When Rick says resolved here, he means recovering bodies after cave diving tragedies.
Rick Stanton: If you resolve an incident, then you’re likely to be called for the next one. Then the next one, and so that’s how that side of things progressed.
Host: When you picture cave diving, you might imagine stunning otherworldly environments. Those exist, but what has always captured Rick are the voyages into spaces that would make most other people extremely uncomfortable.
Rick Stanton: There are different sorts of cave diving. There’s the cave diving you’d find in Florida or Mexico where the water’s warm, and it’s clear and there’s things to see. That’s what most people think of as cave diving. The stuff that we do, vision is very limited. You’ve got a mask on, which is restricting your field of vision and often visibility certainly isn’t very great. The only thing you can hear is the sound of your bubbles.
That’s almost like a white noise. You’re quite impaired with your senses. I guess that’s something I enjoy, but that clearly isn’t for everybody. I’m not even gonna call it a sport. I’ll call it a pursuit. It’s described as diving, but I would say, I’m not a diver. I haven’t got any diving qualifications. I go caving underwater, and I use diving gear to facilitate that, but I wouldn’t really call myself a diver.
Of course there are risks. You’re immersed in a medium in which you cannot breathe. However, the whole point of cave diving is it’s a very slow and gentle activity. It’s not like a high-adrenaline thing like skydiving or wingsuit flying or anything like that. Everything happens very slowly to the point that I would say, if you’ve got adrenaline, then you’ve certainly done something wrong or you’re not suited to it.
To me, it’s quite peaceful being underwater. Now, there are lots of things you can do to mitigate the dangers of cave diving. So anything that might go wrong, you would have to assume that it probably will and have a backup for that. A backup plan, a backup item equipment. So you always have two breathing sources, two independent cylinders with two regulators, two breathing mouthpieces.
You’ve always got two in case one fails. Clearly, there’s no light there, so any light that has to be provided is artificial in the form of torches or lamps. So you’d always have more than two, probably three or more torches with you. So all these things that you can do and keep within your experience level, or only taking small incremental steps. Don’t just go from a beginner to doing something that’s clearly outside your experience zone.
So yes, it’s dangerous. Yes, people dive, but it doesn’t have to be done in a dangerous manner.
Host: When Rick first heard of the soccer team trapped in the cave in Thailand, he and his diving partner, John Volanthen, knew that their extensive experience could be useful to the rescue operation, but they would need an invitation from the Thai government to get involved.
Rick began sending emails with the help of the British Cave Rescue Council outlining the skills that would be needed to complete the rescue and their own experiences using those exact skills in similar rescues.
Rick Stanton: But at the same time, there was a British cave up on the scene, right from the start of the incident, and he could see what was going on. His name was Vernon Unsworth. I’d never met him before. But he was very aware of my name and John Volanthen’s name, who I do a lot of diving and these rescues with. He could see that whilst there were thousands of people on the site in Thailand, on the ground and in the cave, none of them had any real cave diving experience, and none of them had any rescue experience of this sort.
I would describe him as a grumpy old man, in a nice way. I don’t mean that in a derogatory term, but he certainly felt confident going up to a Thai minister and saying to him, “I would highly recommend you contact these two individuals.”
So with all fantastic credit to the Thai minister and the other minister who was involved, they took this information on board, contacted us and had arranged the flight for us that evening.
Host: When Rick and John landed at the airport in Thailand, they were welcomed as saviors, but Rick felt their gratitude was premature.
Rick Stanton: We don’t really like announcing anything before anything’s done. We’d have quite happily gone there incognito and just kept our heads down and gone on with it in the background. But then the first time we got on to the cave entrance, the boys had been in the cave for four days. It was dark, it was pouring with rain. There was deep mud on the floor everywhere, and the most incredible thing was there were hundreds of people, if not thousands. And they somehow knew who we were. There seemed to be some sort of lack of coordination, even to the point of chaos. There wasn’t a lot they could do because the cave was continuing to flood.
Host: Nobody knew how far into the cave the boys were and the water had risen dramatically in the four days since they first went missing. The initial rescue effort had started with crews, setting up operations about a mile into the cave, but pulsing flood waters had forced the rescuers to move their staging grounds halfway back toward the cave’s entrance.
Rick Stanton: So now the rescue operation was a lot further back from where it had been the day previously. That first night, it rained heavily. We were sleeping in a tin shack and the rain was beating on the roof all evening and all night. From my point of view, it didn’t bode very well.
We just thought the cave would filter the roof and that would be it. You have to remember that flooding in caves catches out experienced cavers all over the world. One of the principal reasons for cave rescue is flooding because caves are made by water, and that they still often have water in them. From our point of view, it was always getting more complicated than we thought.
Host: The next day, Rick and John decided there was no time to lose and chose to enter the cave to see what they could learn as the water levels inside continued to rise. By this point, there was water all the way out of the cave’s entrance.
They had maps of the cave, thanks to the British expat who had recommended them for the job, Vernon Unsworth. He had spent the last six years mapping Tham Luang, which he said he knew as well as his own home, but he was not a diver. Rick and John expected to dive through three sections of cave flooded to the roof before reaching a chamber.
But when they arrived in that chamber, they encountered something completely unexpected.
Rick Stanton: We reached the third chamber. There were some people there and that surprised us because one, they were trapped, and no one had told us that anyone was still in the cave. We had been told that the cave had been completely evacuated the afternoon previously.
And we looked at these people and realized they weren’t boys. They were adults. And in the conversation we had, we realized they were pump workers who missed the evacuation call because they’d been resting in an alcove and got themselves trapped. No one knew that they were missing or certainly no one had reported them missing.
So that’s all led us even more to think how chaotic this whole scene on the ground was. And we had to rescue them immediately. One, we didn’t feel there was enough time. The water was rising around them so quickly that we didn’t feel there was enough time to go out and organize a proper rescue. And secondly, there was no one there. There were no other cave divers like us on the site.
There were many people in the Thai Navy Seals, but there were no experienced rescue divers there, so we decided to rescue these four people between us, there and then, and take them out to the entrance.
The distances we had to bring them out was only 10 yards at a time, and three times. But like most people in Thailand, they might be able to swim a bit, but they’re not in any way, natural water people. I best describe it as an underwater wrestling match. We were wearing two cylinders, we’d put one regulator in their mouth, grab them around the back, hold onto them tight and dive through with them. Their heads were being bound. You can’t see anything, but the moment we started going up, they realized there was probably airspace, though they weren’t necessarily correct.
We really had to hang onto them as they were struggling to get away from us. And if they got away from us, we wouldn’t have been able to locate them in the murk because you couldn’t see anything. So we really had to hold onto them and the line at the same time. So it was a bit daunting for us. They were keen to get out, but they certainly didn’t have the means to prevent panicking.
They were adults, and the distances were very short. Now, we didn’t even know that the boys were alive or where they were at this point, but we realized if they were going to have to dive out a long way, that we were gonna have to come up with something to stop panic.
Host: Around the world, members of the small community of cave rescue divers started hearing the news reports about what was going on. Among them was Dr. Richard Harris, who lives in Adelaide, Australia.
Dr. Richard Harris: I think it was about one or two days after the boys went missing, I just noticed a very small clipping in the local newspaper about a soccer team lost in a cave in Thailand that was flooding. And given my background with volunteer cave rescue and sump rescue operations, which I’d been leading some training for in Australia for the last 10 or 12 years. I started to follow the story, and it was a bit later on that I heard that Rick and John had arrived on scene. Very quickly I started messaging Rick, if there’s anything we can do to help, let us know.
Rick was fairly despondent fairly early on, saying that probably there’s nothing to be done. Actually, this situation looks awful. The cave is undiveable. The chance of the boys still being alive seemed very slim. And even if they were found, it was probably gonna be a body recovery, not a rescue mission at that stage.
Rick Stanton: But you have to imagine this is a horizontal tunnel. No one had studied what would happen there in a flood. Everyone assumed the whole of this horizontal tunnel would be underwater.
Host: Five days had passed since Rick and John arrived on the cave site. After their initial dive and the rescue of the four pump workers, the cave had become virtually undiveable due to the rising flood waters. For the tragic death of a Thai Navy seal who was diving in the cave, all diving was halted, but on Monday, July 2, 10 days after the boys were first reported missing, conditions improved slightly and permission was given for Rick and John to finally dive the cave again.
Rick Stanton: You can imagine that we still have no knowledge of where the boys were. We’ve been given information where they might be, but we weren’t in any way certain. You couldn’t see anything in the water.
And then we surfaced in a place that was neck deep in water. And as I’d been progressing, I had been, any time our heads were above water, I would take my mask off and sniff the atmosphere because the caves have what I describe is a very neutral smell, maybe a bit earthy, but a sense of smell gets quite acute when there’s nothing else when, when it’s just neutrality.
So we were certain we would smell them. And at that time, at that furthest point, when we’d reached it, I instantly smelled them and told John to take his mask off and confirm that. It was not really necessary. Just as we were having a chat, we heard voices and then saw a light shining down toward us.
We weren’t sure what we were gonna encounter. This was their 10th day they’d been in the cave. They hadn’t had any food with them whatsoever. We had a little camera, like a GoPro camera with us. John got that out and that iconic video of them making their way down the slope and into view.
That’s exactly what we saw. People coming down, I could count them as they were coming around the corner, down the slope, and positioning themselves in front of us. And I counted 13 before, or just as John had uttered those words, “How many of you are there?” And that was it. And they were completely calm and stoic.
I mean, there, if you re-look at that video, some of the younger boys who were 11 or 12 were a little bit in tears at the bottom, but that was generally what happened. They were completely calm and composed and barely even surprised to see us. John was saying believe, believe to himself that this was real.
We’d found them and they were all alive and all quite healthy. They’d carved a couple of ledges on this ledge so they could all lie together, but there wasn’t much in there; it was muddy walls and a sandy floor. Just to give them something to do at the very top, they’d started digging their own escape tunnel.
And from where their location was, they were probably 3,000 feet below the surface, a long way horizontally. So there was no chance of ever getting out, but I still wouldn’t discredit their attempt. It just gave them focus. It gave them something to do, and it distracted them from their predicament. We tried to reassure them and comfort them.
It’s okay. It’s okay. Many people are coming. Many, many people. We are the first of many people to come. What, what day? Monday. You have been here 10 days, 10 days. You are very strong, very strong.
If the current had been strong as it had been on the previous Thursday or Friday, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get back to them.
So there was always tempered with, we really might be the only people that ever see them. We knew the best thing we had to do was get out, and inform the others. One, the good news that they’re all alive. There’s two of us. And get onto the next phase.
Host: We’ll be right back.
At the top of the episode, we told you about Stillhouse. Maker of award-winning spirits that come in unbreakable stainless steel cans. Now my colleague Maren is gonna tell us how to craft a fantastic backcountry cocktail with Stillhouse spiced cherry whiskey.
Well, the first thing I’m gonna do when I get to the campsite is cool down my ingredients. A cold mountain stream works perfect for this. We’re gonna make a twist on the Dirty Shirley. So I’m packing Stillhouse spiced cherry whiskey and some lemon-lime sodas. Into the stream they go. Yep, then once you’ve made camp, take those sodas and Stillhouse cans out of the stream.
You’re gonna pour that soda and whiskey into your camp mugs. One soda split between you and your backpacking buddy is just about perfect. If you’re feeling fancy, you can garnish with a sprig of pine needles. That really adds a classy touch. So last question: When are we going backpacking? Let’s do it, I wanna go soon. Absolutely. This summer, the Stillhouse team is embarking on an epic American road trip, rolling in their sprinter van to bring good times and great memories to a campsite near you.
They’re calling it “The Detour.” Check Stillhouse.com for dates, locations, and information. Stillhouse is the official spirit of adventure. Please drink responsibly.
Rick Stanton and his diving partner, John Volanthen, were shocked to find all 12 boys and their coach alive, some 2.5 miles deep inside Tham Luang cave.
Newscaster: Navy seals are now taking food and medical supplies to the boys that are trapped down there. One Navy seal is even staying with them to provide reassurance, but it is two British divers who first found them who have decades of experience. Risking their lives for a lost soccer team who until this moment they had never met.
How many of you? 13? Brilliant.
Rick Stanton: Our whole journey out, we were thinking we’ve made the promise to come back, but I actually don’t know how to rescue them.
It’s a long way. It’s not very nice under water. There’s no precedent for this. It was unclear how we were going to get them out.
Host: The boys’ plight captivated the world, and however misplaced, for the first time, there was hope and with hope came more help.
Dr. Richard Harris: Once Rick and John surfaced in chamber 9 and found that soccer team alive, of course, everything changed and not just my interest, but I think the world’s interest changed on, on a phenomenal scale.
I thought as a doctor and a cave diver, maybe with these boys being alive, surely there must be something I can do. Maybe I could dive to the end of the cave and help support the kids whilst the extrication plan came together, my communications with Rick just increased in frequency and similarly, his concern or despondence about the chance of getting the kids out alive seemed to increase even further, to be honest.
He really felt that there was no possible solution to getting these kids out.
Host: The Thai Navy Seals sent two teams into the cave to the boys who would remain with them until a rescue attempt could be made. Meanwhile, everyone from experts, to government officials, to Elon Musk were offering theories on how exactly to rescue the boys.
Rick Stanton: We had no idea how to bring them out. We knew it was gonna be a huge task. We knew that panic would be the biggest thing, not only from our experience with those four pump workers very early on, on our first proper day in the cave. But also, we’ve been involved in other events. We’ve been involved in rescue practices.
And even once, maybe 25-30 years ago, I was doing a rescue practice with a very experienced diver, and I was leading him out as if he was a non-diver in the equipment we would then later use in Thailand. And he effectively panicked underwater in a cave that he was aware of because it’s hugely disorientating.
He assumed that I was getting us lost, which I wasn’t. And he ended the exercise, which is fair enough, but that always stuck with me that even someone that’s used to cave diving is not comfortable being underwater and led. So that always played in my mind, and it just seemed the obvious thing to do would be to sedate them.
Dr. Richard Harris: So I think it was on Thursday, the 5th of July, I was actually at work. I was in the operating theater. I’m an anesthesiologist in my day job. And Rick and I were exchanging messages early that morning before I went to work, and then he suddenly just sent me this message saying, what do you think about sedating the children to bring them out?
I just did a double take when I saw that message. I couldn’t even believe he was proposing it. It just seemed ridiculous. The idea of rendering someone unconscious and pushing them underwater for what would be I gathered about a three-hour journey through very difficult underwater terrain and zero visibility, I just thought that’s just a death sentence for those children.
He needs to definitely come up with something better than that, but I just reiterated. Look, if you want us to come over. I’m happy to do so. And I think it was on that basis and in his mind, I was coming to anesthetize the children. I was going to do anything else in my mind, I was going to do anything but anesthetize those kids.
Rick Stanton: The only problem was of course, as Harry rightly pointed out, no one had ever been sedated underwater before. There was no precedent for this. There’s no history. There’s no knowledge whatsoever. So this was really where we were writing the rulebook as we went along.
Dr. Richard Harris: So I was fairly insistent on diving the cave the next day. And I also just needed to see the children with my own eyes and have a look at the environment they were in. I just couldn’t even conceive of doing what was being asked of me until I had a clear mental picture of what the place looked like and what the children looked like.
And that I would be safe in the caves. My recollection was that the cave dive was, as Rick had described indeed, a bit sporting, and it was quite an arduous dive, about a three-hour journey through still fairly high-flow water, not nothing like what Rick and John had experienced early on. The water was genuinely zero visibility. I mean, I had my eyes closed half the time. There was no point turning a light on or opening your eyes for most of it. It was just Braille diving, really. You’re just feeling the rope as you leave the cave.
And then I’ll call them dry chambers. There were still canals full of water, but you’d have to wade up those canals, carrying your cylinders and then back underwater again. And then as we surfaced in chamber 9, seeing the children for the first time was just extraordinary. And to some degree, it actually put some of my fears to rest because the children looked really good.
I mean, they looked very thin of course, but they were all standing and walking and talking. Their morale seemed high. The Thai Navy Seals were there, and they are extraordinary guys. You can imagine very tough and upbeat and positive looking people. But the environment was really oppressive. And I thought these children can’t live here for very much longer.
It was just oppressive, the smell in there. It’s only a matter of time before they succumb to infection or start to have problems. I could hear a couple of the children already coughing and thought that chest infections were already starting in some of the boys. That was the first time when I realized that we’re gonna have to do something to get these children out of here.
The other knowledge I had at that stage was from a briefing the night before, which told us that we only had about a three- to five-day weather window before the monsoon rains would return in force. Suddenly I realized that there was a huge time imperative, and there was no chance of these children coming out by themselves scuba diving under their own steam, or even in the company of another expert diver, having now seen them for myself and realizing how difficult and complex the underwater sections of the cave were. Experienced cave divers can always remember their early dives and reflect on how challenging and frightening that environment is when you start. It was very obvious to me that the children would panic in very short order.
Panic underwater is certain death, and not just for the children, but probably for the person who’s trying to escort them out.
Host: Without any realistic or viable alternative, and with the impending rains, that would take the matter out of their hands, Dr. Harris agreed that sedation was their only alternative.
Dr. Richard Harris: He brought a handwritten note with him into the cave and asked Dr. Puck, the Thai Navy medical doctor, to relay the plan to the boys. I was just watching the boys’ faces. Honestly, I can just say they were just nodding. Yep. No worries. A few thumbs up as if this was the most natural idea in the world.
And I did see Puck give me a slightly sideways glance as he was halfway through this note, because this of course was news to him as well. And it’s a credit to his professionalism that he didn’t attack me and throw me outta the cave for proposing such a monstrous idea, but the kids were extraordinarily relaxed.
I wonder if you are so desperately trapped with no hope of escape, and someone offers you the hand of salvation, you will take it. It doesn’t matter what the hand looks like. And I think I left feeling that I was the only person in the room who genuinely still believed that this had no chance of success.
Host: The obstacles facing the rescuers seemed insurmountable, and yet there was no viable alternative. Dr. Harris would be unable to supervise the children to monitor their airway or give further doses of anesthetics when they inevitably wore off. That would be the responsibility of the divers who had little medical training.
It just seemed like a plan that was at best ludicrous, and at worst, I felt like it was probably euthanasia that we were performing. I think at the end of the day, it ultimately came down to this binary decision for me that either I get on a plane, leave Thailand and leave these children to die, knowing that would be a very awful death for them—would probably take two to three weeks and they would die of starvation and exposure and infection, let alone the psychological impact of that on the kids. And also that these Thai Navy seals would also die because they would not leave those children, I was sure of that. Or we just do something, even if it was a terrible idea. And in many ways it’s easier just to do something than to walk away and leave people to that fate.
I think to feel like you’re taking active steps for the children, it was a lot easier to do than to do nothing. And I think I consoled myself with the idea that when these kids inevitably did perish, at least they would be asleep when that happened, and that their bodies would be returned to their parents.
Rick Stanton: We had seen, despite the fact that it’s now established, there were 5,000 people involved overall. That includes people doing the washing, providing clothes, people providing food, all the journalists, massive amounts of military. The Thai Navy seals were actually operating in the cave, diving.
If it wasn’t us that was gonna come up with the plan and lead the rescue, there was no one else there with any background in that whatsoever. And we found that moral obligation. My friend who was with me while we were there, she said I totally changed the moment we found the boys. All my efforts were directed into how we were going to get them out.
It was a bit of a no-brainer. It had to be us. There was nobody else there that could have had those skills or had that experience. You can’t just walk away from something like that. You have to step up to the mark.
Host: In all, it took the rescue divers a week to plan the rescue, jumping through political hoops and racing against the weather. The monsoons were coming, but the divers could not afford to rush. Cave divers were called from around the world, and every effort was made to test all the logistical components of the mission.
Rick Stanton: I’d asked to go to a swimming pool in the local town with some boys who had come from the swimming club, and we practiced the actual technique we were going to use to bring the boys out. That was to ensure it worked, to iron out any issues with that. We walked through that with—we had things replicating cylinders, things replicating the boys.
We were confident in all of that, but the only thing that hadn’t ever been practiced was the fact that how would people be sedated underwater? There was still no knowledge base on that. So it was with that weighing heavily on Dr. Richard Harris, that we went into the cave on that first rescue day, which was Sunday.
Host: There would be four core divers paired with a boy who would take turns, guiding one boy at a time throughout the entirety of the cave, a journey they estimated would take three hours. Then there were teams of divers along the routes assigned to a specific task. Dr. Richard Harris was in chamber 9 where the whole team waited.
He was the first to arrive and the last to leave since it was his task to administer the sedation, another diver with some medical training was stationed in chamber 7-8, who would check over the boys after the first dive. Two more divers were also stationed in that chamber, waiting with a stretcher to transfer the boys over a dry bit of cave.
There were always two divers in each canal section who would swim with the boys, giving the rescue diver a chance to prepare for the next dive.
Rick Stanton: We all took up our positions. I described it as processing the boys. The first boy was in the process.
Dr. Richard Harris: I found myself surprisingly calm and I mean, I have performed medicine in strange environments before. I felt like I could just put it in that work box, and just, this is just another day at the office.
Rick Stanton: I gave him a Xanax tablet to calm his nerves, put him in a wetsuit, put the jacket on after the jacket. Then he walked down to the water’s edge and Dr. Richard Harris would inject him with the ketamine that was going to sedate him completely unconconsious.
Dr. Richard Harris: The injections would’ve hurt because I was poking a decent size needle through their wetsuit, into their leg, and a big volume of anesthetic drug. It would’ve been bloody painful. It clearly was because you could see them screwing their eyes up, but not one squeak from them. They were amazing.
And then the next thing of course was having to tie the children’s hands behind their backs, restraining a child’s hands behind their back, when they’re unconscious with their face in the water, a very impactful moment in my life. And then. A clear recollection of pushing the first child’s face into that disgusting water and thinking this is about as low as I can go in terms of my morality, not just as a doctor, but as a human being. It felt like drowning kittens almost. It was pretty confronting.
Rick Stanton: We just passionately came up with a plan. We described the process to the boys. We describe everything. that doesn’t prepare you emotionally for the 2.5 hours, 3 hours. Your responsibility for that one person. And that person cannot help themselves, and they’re relying totally on your intervention. Huge, huge responsibilities.
The greatest risk for the boys was, I’ve talked about in cave diving, you have redundancy. So if anything could go wrong, you’d have a spare one, but the boys were put in a full face mask, and a full face mask has a seal. The integrity of that is the most crucial thing. So that really relied on our skill as divers to make sure that the child’s head, face mask was completely protected at all times.
Jason brought the first one out. He couldn’t see anything, very twisty. I was at the receiving end to see Jason and his boy come out, and I was to go back and feed back the information. Yes, he made it. All is good. The sense of tension, we could feel the line twitching as Jason was making our way toward us.
When he surfaced with the boy, we couldn’t see him breathing. It was Jason that had to look up at us and say, “He’s alive, and he’s breathing.” And we had to pull the boy out and take the mask off him there and then, and look after him and carry him for a bit. But that first tension was enormous because we really didn’t know.
Host: Dr. Harris was the last to leave the cave, having no idea if any of the boys had survived.
Dr. Richard Harris: To be told by one of the pararescue team in chamber three where the diving operations essentially finished that four out of four kids were still alive at that point, I was obviously very pleased, but it dawned on me for some reason, how on earth have we gotten away with this?
This is some kind of fluke, and I actually was more worried that night than I had been at any other stage during the rescue. I had this dreadful sense that everything was going to unravel the next day.
Rick Stanton: The first day, we didn’t promise a 100% success. That didn’t seem in any way likely. There were so many things that could go wrong, so the fact that the first day was a 100% success was not only relief and vindication for the plan, but a real morale booster. But there were still things to go wrong. There was no time to be complacent. There was an equal chance of something going wrong on the second or third days.
Dr. Richard Harris: And of course the rain on the roof of the hotel, wondering whether we were actually gonna get back into the cave the next day and thinking now about all those children who I’d met and started to get to know thinking that maybe we won’t even get back in there to help them. And they’ll still be condemned to that dreadful fate that I was worried about.
Rick Stanton: The remarkable thing about the second day was there was nothing remarkable and no one can think of anything to say about it. It all worked just like the first day, except we were more rehearsed, more practiced, and we achieved the rescue of the four boys even quicker.
One thing of note was on the first day we assumed that the authorities would know who we were bringing out just by recognizing them, but they didn’t. Nobody knew who we’d brought out until the boys were conscious in hospital. On the second day, we wrote their three letter nicknames on the back of their hands so that people had more of a clue.
So that was if that was the limit of what we had to change. And now I think that speaks to itself that we had pretty much thought of everything.
Host: On the third and final day of the rescue, there would be five sedations instead of four. Four boys and their coach.
Dr. Richard Harris: So we did the first four, including the coach, and then we were faced with the last boy who turned out to be Mark. The smallest of all the kids. And I thought all the smallest kids had gone. And then this tiny little figure comes down the hill and sits on my lap. Turned out he weighed 29 kilograms, so a really tiny kid. Jason and I were there pretty much alone in the cave, apart from the Navy seals.
We had these two masks to choose from. One was a commercial diving mask, which was actually far too big, probably for any of the kids. It certainly wasn’t gonna fit this little boy. And the other one was this tiny little pink recreational full face mask, which didn’t have the positive pressure function.
So I was very loath to use that as well. So the kid had to go off to sleep because he was already in the water area. He was already starting to shiver. And then we started to play around with these masks, and in the end ended up using the little pink mask, and it looked terrible. The seals were all folding up, and it didn’t look like it was gonna work.
So I sent Jason off with that boy and really thought that this was still gonna end in disaster, at least for this final little kid. I packed up my gear, said goodbye to the Navy seals, who we expected to follow out pretty shortly afterwards and headed out of the cave kind of alone with my thoughts at the end of the day.
Rick Stanton: The second from last one was being brought up by Chris, but there was one exceptionally awkward bit in the last bit of the dive just before breaking surface in chamber 3, where you met all the other people, there was a very awkward, well, I would best be described as a slot that you had to post the boy through and then follow on behind.
The line was extremely tight and out of reach at that point. And Chris lost the line and couldn’t regain it. It’s extremely dangerous to lose the line, especially when it’s a complicated passage shape and it could be, as it was here, the line was trapped in a bit you couldn’t reach. You couldn’t really follow a wall very easily because it’s so intricate. And of course you can’t see, maybe see 6 inches or a foot at the most, probably less. So hugely worrying.
Dr. Richard Harris: I could see there was a light down the far end of. Amber and somebody called out to me, “Harry, is that you?”
And I said, “Yep.” And I recognized it was Chris Jewell. And Chris told me that he had lost the line in that section and had become disorientated and had been swimming around for quite a few minutes with his boy threatening to wake up underwater. He was completely bamboozled in the zero visibility and had popped up into a dry chamber and initially had thought that it was a new part of the cave that no one had been into. He thought he’s stuck there with this boy, who’s starting to wake up, and he’s off the line and no one knows where he is and he’s got no way of finding his way out. He was understandably very frightened and upset.
So when I found Chris, he still looked pretty pale, but he was getting ready to go again, but I just said, “Well, why don’t you just relax and take your time to gather your thoughts. And I’ll take the boy through this last little section.”
Rick Stanton: I feel really happy for Harry that Harry brought this child out the last, I dunno, 80 yards or something, 70 yards himself.
And that completed the picture for Harry. He had been processing all these boys, sedating them and sending them off. He had actually said at the beginning that he wouldn’t be carrying any of the boys because he wasn’t so familiar with that dive in or that cave, but at the end he carried a boy, the last bit in, what you’d call the home straight. And I think that was a real good conclusion for Harry and an indication of his technique and ability and just to carry that last boy home.
Host: Before the rescue in Thailand, Rick and Dr. Harris were both confident, calculated, and meticulous people with an eccentric pastime. They both told us that really not much had changed for them in terms of their outlook. They did the job, they felt a moral responsibility to do, but their unusual hobby suddenly had a very practical and important purpose.
Dr. Richard Harris: I think most of the cave divers approached this with a very pragmatic perspective, knowing that we have this slightly unusual skill set, which was very much required for this particular rescue. I think it was an American correspondent who described me as a unicorn after the rescue because of this improbable skill mix that I had, which seemed designed specifically for this.
I’m very proud. I think all the rescuers, not just the cave divers, should be, that we just rolled up our sleeves and did our best to solve what seemed like an unsolvable problem. That came from years of experience working to perfect our craft or our passion. We never thought it would be useful to anyone else, but we do dedicate ourselves to this sport of cave exploration.
I mean, we’re just this random bunch of middle-aged cave divers from all around the world, who they had no reason to trust or believe in at all.
Rick Stanton: It certainly changed the way I have lived my life. It hasn’t, I don’t believe it’s changed me as a person. I would say like, if you are a soccer player, you’re at your prime in your twenties and by the mid-thirties, you’re a bit too old for premier league, but cave diving is a very strange activity. Whilst it’s physical, it’s also largely mental. The best cave divers are late thirties and all through their forties and early fifties. That’s when you’ve got not only the most strength and stamina, but the you’ve got the most experience.
I’m 60 now and still occasionally go diving. I’ve got some trips planned for next month. I was quite happy that I’d been retired for four years before the rescue. One of the things I had said to myself, I wanted to try new things and not always follow the same path, but nothing could have prepared me for what was going to happen after Thailand.
Host: Since the cave rescue, there have been innumerable articles written about the ordeal, and most recently, a documentary by Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi titled “The Rescue” that’s available on Disney+.
There’s even a star-studded movie by director Ron Howard set to come out this fall, where Stanton is played by Vigo Mortenson. It’s not bad for a quiet loner kid from Coventry. And of course there’s Rick’s own account of his life and the rescue titled Aquanaut. It’s quite a remarkable story.
Rock Stanton: People are always saying, I should have written a book about my adventures. I certainly have not only participated, but being an influential person in the rescue that certainly gave me a voice to write my book.
Host: Of course, the story we’re telling is from the Western perspective for very practical reasons, but both Dr. Harris and Rick stress that the children really owe their own survival to themselves.
Dr. Richard Harris: I’m quick to point out that the real heroes in this story are those 12 boys and their coach who I don’t know how they found the resilience and courage to just survive that 10 days before Rick and John found them. I mean, just picture for a moment sitting on damp mud 2.5 kilometers underground, very cold, incredibly hungry, no food for all that time.
In the dark, by and large, trying to conserve what little light you have. And just day after day, the increasing feeling that there is no escape from this place, and we are going to slowly die here and never see our parents again. For most people that would be overwhelming and many people would literally just curl up and die in that situation.
What is it about these kids and their coach that they found this courage and resilience to hang on, and not just hang on, but actually keep their morale up. Whilst I’m sure they had some very dark times, by and large, it sounds like that coach did an amazing job at keeping their spirits up, keeping them busy, helping them meditate.
I don’t know what it is that made them so courageous. Perhaps it’s the Thai culture of patience and resilience or whether it’s their Buddhist faith, or whether they’re just tough country kids who have not had easy lives. A lot of these kids were stateless refugees from Myanmar, and they’ve become accustomed to doing hard things and making life a bit tough.
There’s a message there for all of us that we really need to take on challenges and adversity when it comes up because unless we don’t build that resilience that’s necessary for the inevitable challenges in life. I’ve learned a lot from those children, that’s for sure.
Rick Stanton: It’s a feel-good rescue, there’s not really much negative about it. All the things that have happened since have largely been positive and good. I say I’ve structured my life to avoid children very successfully. It’s quite ironic that’s what I’m going to be remembered for.
Host: This episode was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates and Emma Veidt. Editing was by Michael Roberts. This episode was sound designed and scored by Jason Patton. Thank you to Richard Stanton and Dr. Richard Harris for sharing your stories with us. You should definitely check out Rick’s book Aquanaut, which is a just fascinating account that goes into so much more background and detail than we could hear.
Thanks for listening to Out Alive. And if you have a backcountry survival story and you’re interested in sharing, you can email OutAlive@outsideinc.com. This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Stillhouse. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at backpacker.com/outsideplus.