Thai cave diver Rick Stanton reflects on mission to save 13 lives that transformed his own

In school in the 1960s and 70s, he said he could swim and run, but every time a ball came against him, he remembers a feeling of “complete panic.”

As he describes himself, complete lack of eye-hand coordination, it does not sound like anyone would have ever wanted him on their team until Stanton one day, many decades later, finally got the call. This was a football team that not only wanted him, they needed him.

When the Wild Boar’s youth team was missing in Thailand, it was a desperate question of life and death, and as the world followed with restrained breathing.
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Rick Stanton says the rescue attempt changed his life.

Cave diving

Until the summer of 2018, not many had heard of Stanton. But since leaving high school in the 1980s, he had quietly established himself as the prominent expert in his field: cave diving. It is a niche activity that suits his analytical mind and sense of adventure.

“It’s a physical activity,” Stanton told CNN. “But a thinking activity with logistics and planning.”

But the most important thing was the opportunity to explore; the amateur person – without real money – could explore a place that no one else has been before.

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“The whole surface of the world has been photographed, but if you’re the first one there in a cave, you have no idea what’s around the next corner,” he added.

Stanton’s passion is more like an obsession, and he has dedicated his life to it. He never married, and his house in England, filled with homemade diving equipment, once had a Sunday Telegraph journalist describe him as “not the most tamed of men.”

Although he will not describe cave diving as a competitive activity, he admits that “it is a very competitive environment, people will always be the first there.”

It is a persecution that has cost many lives, some of which were known by Stanton, and he has often found their bodies. But he does not consider diving to be risky in itself.

“Just because something seems dangerous, does not mean you have to do it in a dangerous way,” he said. “Driving [a car] can be dangerous if you are a dangerous driver. ”

And he is by no means a thriller seeker. “If you have adrenaline in a cave, you’re doing it wrong,” he added.

He has dived all over the world, often going further and deeper than anyone before him. And he has done it in his own way and avoided the flashy high-tech gadgets used by some of his rivals.

His signature device – a float – is actually a recycled inner tube from a motorcycle tire. If it gives the impression of a beginner, he is anything but.

The rescue team pictured carrying a team member on a stretcher.

‘Complete chaos’

When Stanton and his diving partner Jonathan Volanthen arrived at Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand on June 27, he assumed the 12 boys and their trainer would be dead – they had already been missing for four days. Five more passed before he appeared in a chamber deep inside the cave and shot back for the sharp air.

“They must be dead, we have found their bodies,” he wrote in his autobiography ‘Aquanaut’, but then they heard the voices. A moment of relief and elation was quickly followed by greater concern.

“The worst was after we found them,” Stanton reminded CNN. “We had no idea how to get them out.”

Boys rescued from Thai cave play friendly match at World Cup stadium

Stanton says he has dived into more difficult caves, but this particular experience was complicated by what he discovered when planning the rescue strategy. The caves were no longer in natural condition, instead they were filled with electric cables, pipes and diesel oil leaking from the pumps.

As he maneuvers through the dark and small nooks and crannies of a flooded cave network, he describes a scene of “complete chaos.” On their second day in the cave, Stanton and Volanthen had to rescue four pump workers who had been isolated from their crew and captured. No one even seemed to know they were missing.

It was a difficult evacuation, the men were only underwater for about 40 seconds at a time, but Stanton said they were all terrified. “We handled them, put regulators in their mouths and dived only short distances, but they pretty much all panicked. I describe it as an underwater wrestling match.”

At the time, the improvised rescue was an unnecessary distraction, and it further delayed the localization of the boys, but it was an experience that ultimately helped get them all out alive.

READ: Boys rescued from Thai cave received by Manchester United
Members of the 'Wild Boars' team pose to promote a Netflix series about the team's rescue.

‘I do not declare it a miracle’

As all of this unfolded, Stanton had inadvertently become one of the main actors on stage in a global drama. Every day, the “stony Brits” walked into the cave past hundreds of news reporters and stoic mothers of the missing boys.

He says he’s good at wearing flashes – he was able to remove all the noise – but admits it would have been difficult if he had really been made aware that millions of people had been emotionally invested over Worldwide.

Asked why he thinks so many people cared so much, he describes the Thai cave rescue as “the ultimate reality show”.

“As morbid as it may be, it was the uncertainty,” he explained.

Thai boys remember the struggle to survive cave samples - and the moment they were found

No one could be sure of a happy ending to the story, not even Stanton, who had concluded that the only way to save the boys was to reassure them.

It was an extraordinary venture, inspired by their experience with the stranded pump workers, but as the monsoon rains picked up, it was “the best of all the worst opportunities.”

Another cave diver, the Australian anesthetist Dr. Richard Harris, strongly disagreed with the idea. That was until he had dived down to see the predicament they were in.

“There was no scientific knowledge that anyone was stunned underwater,” Stanton said.

“If you reassure someone in the hospital, they will be completely monitored and intubated and have resuscitation teams around.”

In the National Geographic documentary ‘The Rescue’, Dr. Harris that he felt he was “killing” the boys in the cave, and it was only then that the enormity of it all finally hit Stanton.

“We made the plan passionately, but it does not prepare you for the moment you stun a boy, make them unconscious, put a mask on them, tie them up and pull them underwater.

“You’re the only person who cradles that boy for two and a half hours. That’s when the responsibility for what you do really hit.”

Stanton and his team were prepared for several deaths, they simply did not believe it would be possible to make 13 successful trips. But he was wrong, after three days of intense diving, the boys and their coach had all been evacuated.

How close was it that everything went wrong? “It’s hard to say,” laughed Stanton. “Because it all went right. Thirteen consecutive positive results have some statistical relevance.”

Was it a miracle? “I would stretch it to say that it was miraculous that all these things happened sequentially. It was a collaboration between thousands of people, it was unique planning,” he said.

“It was miraculous that everything happened, but I do not declare it a miracle.”

READ: Thai cave rescue boys sign Netflix deal for miniseries

Teamwork saved them

Before the Thai cave rescue, Stanton wondered what to do with the rest of his life and also asked what he had done with his life. He had retired as a firefighter and had become disillusioned with diving.

He wrote in ‘Aquanaut’ and lamented: “I had dedicated my life to reaching the top in this one activity that was absolutely meaningless, it brought nothing to anyone.”

But then the Wild Boar’s youth team entered the cave, and the rest is history.

He says he does not believe in fate, but admits that it would be difficult to argue against the existence of fate in his own narrative arc. “It seems that everything I have done has led to this in incremental steps,” he said.

By saving all these lives in the cave, his own life has been transformed. He is now a sought-after guest speaker, a published author, and he will soon be portrayed by the American actor Viggo Mortensen in the Ron Howard film ‘Thirteen Lives’.

Remarkably, some of the boys still go into the cave for fun, but he does not look much at them anymore – the language barrier makes it difficult to develop any kind of meaningful relationship.

But he knows they are grateful, the smiles on their faces when he saw them six months after the rescue told him everything he needed to know. “They don’t have to say it in words,” he said.

And even though he still does not consider himself a football fan, he now has some appreciation for the game.

“They were a team before the rescue, during and after,” he concludes. “And I think it played a very big role in their own survival.

“We were afraid they might challenge us to a match because we would lose by a huge number of goals. That would be hugely embarrassing!”

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