CHIANG RAI – For the heroic British divers who found a missing Thai football team in a flooded cave system, it was only the latest in a series of brave rescue missions around the globe.
Rick Stanton, 56, and 47-year-old John Volanthen had been called in by the Thai authorities last week along with fellow British caving experts Robert Harper, from Somerset, and Vern Unsworth.
Bill Whitehead, vice chair of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC), said Rick Stanton and his colleague Volanthen spearheaded the mission. “They were pushing ahead with the other divers following on behind, creating dumps of air bottles,” he said.
“They managed to dive the last section and get through into the chamber where the missing party were on a ledge above the water.”
Stanton, aged in his mid-fifties, is a firefighter who hails from Coventry and is regarded as one of Britain’s foremost cave divers, with more than 35 years experience.
Stanton combines expertise in dry caving and technical diving. In 2013 he described his numerous search and rescue missions as “my hobby”, telling divenet that his participation on missions had been on an “entirely voluntary” basis.
Stanton was awarded an MBE in 2012 for services to cave diving, and is often described as the face of British cave diving, and the best cave diver in Europe.
Volanthen, who brushed off reporters when entering the cave six days ago, saying only “we’ve got a job to do”, started out as a dry caver who has helped pioneer new equipment that allows cave divers to stay underwater for longer and at greater depths.
Volanthen’s technical skills include pushing the limits of rebreather technology, thought to be used by the pair as they navigate the six-mile (10 kilometres) Tham Luang Nang Non network in northern Thailand.
Volanthen is a computer engineer who runs marathons in his spare time and lives in Bristol.
In 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.
British diver Neil Bennett of NZ Diving said 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.”
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”.
“They are diving daily, for long periods, in very challenging and hazardous conditions and need full rest and recuperation in the short time between dives,” a BCRC spokesman said. “Clear judgment and physiological recovery are essential for their personal safety and effectiveness in the operation to rescue the boys.”
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 now allow essential supplies to be ferried to the trapped boys, the BCRC said.
Talking to divenet in 2007, Stanton said cave divers tended to shun the limelight. “I’m only interested in the cave, where it’s going and how it ends,” Stanton said. “I suppose that’s what motivates me – I don’t know why, but that’s it.”
In February 2014, both men were 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, recounting the aborted mission.
By Eleanor Ainge Roy