Britis at heart of Thai cave rescue made DOZENS of life-saving dives

The ‘A-Team of cave rescue’: Brits who left their very ordinary lives to lead operation to save youth soccer team stuck underground in Thailand and say they are ready to ‘make their peace’ if daring missions go wrong

  • Brit divers who found trapped Thai football team are ‘ the best’ rescue experts 
  • Retired firefighter Rick Stanton involved in rescue of 13 cavers in Mexico in 2004
  • He and John Volanthen worked together on search and rescue ops around world
  • IT consultant Mr Volanthen and Mr Stanton tried to rescue French diver in 2010 
  • In 2012 both men received a Royal Humane Society medal at Buckingham Palace

The heroic British divers who were the first to reach a stranded group of 12 boys and their football coach in flooded caves in Thailand are world leaders in cave rescue.

Retired firefighter Rick Stanton, from Coventry, and John Volanthen, an IT consultant from Bristol, joined the vast search after the group disappeared in the Luang Nang Non Cave, Chiang Rai province, on June 23. 

It is not the first time the elite divers have joined forces for complex rescues. They both have established reputations as being among the best cave rescuers in the world, and were called upon by Thai authorities who were seeking expert help.

And in a revealing 2013 interview Mr Volanthen said: ‘If something goes wrong 10 kilometres down an underwater tunnel, you usually have until your air runs out to find a solution or make your peace.’

Rick Stanton (pictured left, today) and John Volanthen (right) joined the vast search after the group disappeared in the Luang Nang Non Cave, Chiang Rai province, on June 23

Bill Whitehouse, vice-chair of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC), described the British divers leading the mission as the ‘A Team’.

He added: ‘They have been at the spearhead of making their way through, because they have the skills and the expertise to do it. One of the first things they had to do was lay a guideline so that they could get out again and so others could follow along.’    


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A third British cave diver, Robert Harper, was also sent to Thailand by the BCRC, and the team has been joined by Vern Unsworth, a British cave explorer based in Chiang Rai, Reuters reported. 

Diving lines laid down by the British cave divers will allow essential supplies to be ferried to the trapped boys.

Mr Stanton, who is in his 50s, previously said his greatest achievement was helping rescue trapped British soldiers from a cave in Mexico in 2004.

Mr Stanton (pictured right) and Mr Volanthen (left). The elite divers have established reputations as being among the best cave rescuers in the world, and were called upon by Thai authorities who were seeking expert help

Regarded as one of the world’s leading cave rescue experts, he told publication Divernet that diving is a ‘hobby’ he does voluntarily.

Mr Stanton, who was made an MBE at the end of 2012, told the Coventry Telegraph at the time: ‘My biggest achievement was helping rescue the six soldiers.

‘They were trapped for nine days and we had to teach a few of them to dive through a considerable length of passage to get them out.

‘It took about nine hours to get them all out.’

Mr Stanton is a firefighter from Coventry who was involved in the rescue of 13 cavers in Mexico in 2004. He and John Volanthen worked together on search and rescue ops around world

He has said his toughest challenge was attempting to rescue accomplished French diver Eric Establie in 2010, whose remains were discovered in southern France.

It is believed the French government requested Stanton and Volanthen by name. 

Mr Stanton said the 10-day mission was ‘a very dangerous dive and a very dangerous cave’, the paper reported.

Mr Volanthen, a keen marathon runner, was also Mr Stanton’s partner on the French rescue attempt, after the elite pair were flown out to help find Mr Establie.

Mr Stanton and Mr Volanthen walk to the Tham Luang cave area at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 3, 2018 after finding the children

Both men were awarded a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society in recognition of their rescue attempt in the Ardeche Gorge, southern France.

Mr Volanthen, an IT consultant in his 40s and based in Bristol, was also part of a British team with Mr Stanton which reportedly set a world record for a deep underwater cave dive in Spain in 2010.

The pair are members of the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue team, and Mr Volanthen has described caving as requiring a cool head, saying: ‘Underwater, things happen slowly.’

Alive: The frightened youngsters were huddled together when the rescue team discovered them trapped in the flooded cave

All 12 boys and their football team coach were found alive after nine days of frantic searching

He told the Sunday Times magazine in 2013: ‘Panic and adrenaline are great in certain situations but not in cave-diving. What you want is nice and boring.

‘If something goes wrong 10 kilometres down an underwater tunnel, you usually have until your air runs out to find a solution or make your peace.’

In 2004 Mr Volanthen and Mr Stanton set a new record after cave-diving 76 meters (249ft).

The pair broke the previous record, set in 2003, by 5.5 metres (18ft) thanks to a breathing system they developed for the attempt at Wookey Hole in Somerset.

British cave-divers Richard Stanton (left), John Volanthen (in blue) and Robert Harper (in orange) before diving in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai

Mr Volanthen, originally from Brighton, attended Westminster University and has worked in Bristol for the past 20 years, according to his LinkedIn page.

In a previous interview Mr Volanthen said he started caving as a scout.

He told the Sunday Times magazine: ‘I enjoy the logistical challenge.

‘Getting us and all our kit to the end of such a long cave… it’s like that puzzle with the fox, the chicken and the grain.

‘It’s not dangerous if you do it right. There are just a large number of little things that you have to be on top of at all times.’ 

 Mr Stanton’s neighbour Tina O’Brien, 65, told MailOnline this morning: ‘He’s a very quiet man, very nice. He’s a retired firefighter and I know he’s into kayaking and potholing, so he’s away quite a lot.

‘We’ve been here 20 years and he’s been around on this street for as long as I can remember.

‘He actually rescued some British soldiers who were stuck in a cave in Mexico a few years back, and I think he’s got an MBE.

‘I’m not sure if he’s married, he might have a girlfriend. But like I said, I don’t know him that well.’ 

Rick Stanton (second from left), Robert Harper (third left with his back to camera) and John Volanthen (right) and an unidentified colleague (left) hold a meeting outside the cave system

The British Cave Rescue Council – the body for voluntary underground rescue in the British Isles – said it has been in contact with the British divers since their return 

Bill Whitehouse, the vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said the divers described the journey to the chamber as a ‘gnarly dive’.

‘The description in (the) email was it was ‘a bit of a gnarly dive’, which means there was a bit of complications and problems,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

‘(There was) quite a strong current, so they were having to swim against the current and pull themselves along the wall.

‘The visibility in the water wouldn’t have been very good.’


Mr Volanthen, (pictured)  a keen marathon runner, was also Mr Stanton’s partner on the French rescue attempt, after the elite pair were flown out to help find Mr Establie

The BCRC said Stanton and Volanthen were working in Thailand in a voluntary capacity, and were ‘experts in low-visibility cave dives within small passages’.

There were scenes of elation on Monday as parents and relatives who had gathered at the cave site learned the group had been found in a stable medical condition.

However rescuers still face the challenge of safely helping the boys and their coach to safety through nearly a mile of tunnels, large portions of which are underwater.

Thai authorities have said that the military will make the final decision on how the group are rescued, with one option coaching them to swim through the passages using scuba equipment.

In 2004 Mr Volanthen (right) and Mr Stanton (left) set a new record after cave-diving 76 meters (249ft). The pair broke the previous record, set in 2003, by 5.5 metres (18ft) thanks to a breathing system they developed for the attempt at Wookey Hole in Somerset

Another would be waiting for the water level to drop, which some officials are reported to fear could take months.

BCRC vice chairman Bill Whitehouse described how celebrations on Monday that the group had been found quickly turned to the challenge ahead.

‘It was euphoria for a moment and then you draw back and think ‘what do we do’ – it’s not going to be easy to get 13 people out of a flooded cave,’ he told the Press Association.

‘There’s space to make your way through, but it is 50/50 underwater over 1.5km (0.9mi). That’s still a lot of diving and it’s possible it will need a lot of equipment. The questions is how much time until the water goes up again.’

In footage of the moment the divers arrived in the chamber, a rescuer with an English accent is heard trying to reassure the group that help is coming.

However they warn that they are not going to be retrieved immediately, the voice saying: ‘Not today. There’s two of us, you have to dive.’

Mr Whitehouse said the chances are that the youngsters and their coach will be able to ‘sit it out’ if the water levels rise again.

Since their discovery they have been given a brief medical assessment and supplied with high-protein liquid food, painkillers and antibiotics as a precaution.

‘They clearly want to get them out as quick as they can, they will be making plans to get them out as quickly as possible,’ he said.

A third British cave diver, Robert Harper (pictured), was also sent to Thailand by the BCRC, and the team has been joined by Vern Unsworth, a British cave explorer based in Chiang Rai

Search efforts were hampered last week after heavy rain rushed into the cave network, raising water levels and creating strong currents that made diving ‘more or less impossible’.

Underwater operations resumed after the treacherous conditions began to improve on Sunday, with the forward search party setting off at 6am BST on Monday (1200 local time).

‘The British divers Rick and John were at the spearhead of that,’ Mr Whitehouse said.

‘They were pushing ahead with the other divers following on behind, creating dumps of air bottles.

‘We were hoping that today we would know one way or the other (if the group would be found).

‘They managed to dive the last section and get through into the chamber where the missing party were on a ledge above the water.’

Despite the key role played by the British team in Monday’s remarkable events, Mr Whitehouse highlighted that they were part of a major effort overall.

‘It was a huge operation of which our divers were only a relatively small part, but it happened to be a breakthrough,’ he said.

‘It might have been down to the pumping of water or finding another way in.’

British diver Neil Bennett of NZ Diving told The Guardian the pair were brought together in Thailand because of their technical skills and experience using rebreathers; a type of diving equipment that allows air to be recirculated and reused.

‘In this situation where it is completely extreme and hostile you have to work with a partner who you know well, and is trained to a similar level as yourself. You can’t go down on your own – that would be suicide – you work as a team,’ said Bennett.

‘Both John Volanthen and Rick Stanton are highly accomplished caver divers who have set achievements within a number of major cave systems around Europe … they specialise in rebreather technology that is ideally suited for the situation faced in the Thai cave system.’ 

PREVIOUS RESCUES CARRIED OUT BY THE ‘A TEAM’ OF CAVE DIVES

2004: Richard Stanton is called out for a large rescue mission helping save trapped British soldiers from a cave in Mexico.

Mr Stanton told the Coventry Telegraph at the time: ‘My biggest achievement was helping rescue the six soldiers.

‘They were trapped for nine days and we had to teach a few of them to dive through a considerable length of passage to get them out.

‘It took about nine hours to get them all out.’

2010: The pair attempted the rescue of accomplished French diver Eric Establie, who was trapped by a silt avalanche inside the Ardeche Gorge, near Marseille.

It is believed the French government requested Stanton and Volanthen by name. The duo received medals from the Royal Humane Society for their eight-day effort to save Establie, whose body they recovered from the cave.   

September 2011 As part of a national team, Richard Stanton recovers the body of an experienced cave diver in Ireland in September 2011. He is later handed a chief fire officer’s commendation for his work in Coventry and cave rescue work around the world.

February 2014: Both men are asked by the Norwegian police to help rescue the bodies of two cavers who died more than 100 metres underground in a caving network know as Steinugleflaget in Norway.

Stanton told the BBC at the time that despite the British team trying their best; the rescue mission was too dangerous and could not be safely executed.

‘It was evident that it was going to be quite a protracted affair, lots of dives, down deep and cold – and that was really beyond our remit,’ Stanton told the BBC at the time.     

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