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British divers leading Thailand cave rescue

The divers who swam and searched for 90 minutes to find 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand were not professional rescuers, but experienced volunteer divers from England. CNN's Phil Black reports.

Posted: Jul 5, 2018 10:00 AM
Updated: Jul 5, 2018 10:09 AM

The two British volunteer rescue divers who found a Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave network are well acquainted with harrowing rescue attempts.

John Volanthen and Richard "Rick" Stanton are expert cave divers skilled in navigating perilous underwater passages, a colleague says -- and they've been called abroad before to help with difficult rescues.

On Monday, Volanthen and Stanton found 12 boys and their soccer coach alive some nine days after the team went missing -- up to 1 kilometer underground in a narrow cave system in northern Thailand.

"Many people are coming," one of the divers told the group. The men reported their discovery to Thai authorities running the search, and Thai Navy SEALs have been tending to the soccer team while officials develop plans to extricate the group.

The BBC reported that Volanthen is an IT consultant from Bristol, and Stanton is a retired firefighter from Coventry.

Both have extensive cave diving experience and are members of a volunteer team -- the British Cave Rescue Council -- that makes itself available for rescue efforts around the world, BCRC liaison officer Chris Jewell said.

Jewell talked to both men on Monday night, after they exited the cave.

"Rick and John installed a guideline -- a line that can then be subsequently followed by the Thai Navy SEALs," Jewell said in a Skype interview with CNN from Manchester, England.

The men left behind a couple of lights and some food before heading back, Jewell said.

"Rick and John have now stepped back from operational diving whilst the Thai Navy SEALs continue to conduct work in the cave, making multiple trips to the boys to drop off supplies and look after them whilst they plan the extraction," he said.

'Few cave divers in the world have (their) skills'

Both men have been honored for their previous rescue work.

In October 2010, the volunteers were called to France, where they tried to find a diver who didn't re-emerge after exploring a submerged cave more than a kilometer long.

Any exploration was difficult, requiring specialized equipment and "lengthy, planned decompression stops," an account from the UK's Royal Humane Society said.

The missing man had been the only person to ever explore the chamber beyond 700 meters, and he was trying to go beyond that when he disappeared.

"Few cave divers in the world have the skills and equipment to follow this man, and the nearest were Richard and John," the society's account said.

After multiple dives, Volanthen and Stanton found a way past a blockage and discovered the diver's body.

Princess Alexandra awarded them a Royal Humane Society medal at Buckingham Palace for the rescue attempt in 2012.

Stanton also helped with a rescue of 13 British cavers in Mexico in 2004, the BBC reported. The firefighter was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire at the end of 2012 for services to local government.

'A gnarly dive'

Their skills were on display Monday. One of the divers described their work in an email to a BCRC official.

"The description in his email was it was a bit of a gnarly dive, which means there were complications and problems," said Bill Whitehouse, the council's vice chairman. "Quite a strong flow, current, so they're having to swim against the current and pull themselves along the walls. The visibility in the water wouldn't have been very good."

Volanthen's mother, Jill Volanthen, told the BBC she had "absolute pride" in her son's work, and she felt "absolute relief" for the children.

"But I don't think it's all over yet. Let them get them out first," she said of the trapped team.

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