Thai cave diver Rick Stanton looks back on the mission to save 13 lives that transformed his own
At school in the 1960s and 1970s, he says he could swim and run, but every time a ball came his way he remembers feeling “complete panic”.
The way he describes himself, totally lacking hand-eye coordination, it seems like no one would ever want him on their team, until one day, decades later, Stanton finally got the call. . It was a football team that not only wanted him, but needed him.
Until the summer of 2018, few people had heard of Stanton. But since leaving high school in the 1980s, he has quietly established himself as the preeminent expert in his field: cave diving. It’s a niche activity that suits his analytical mind and sense of adventure.
“It’s physical activity,” Stanton told CNN. “But a thought-provoking activity with logistics and planning.”
But the main thing was the opportunity to explore; the amateur – without real monetary means – could explore a place that no one else has been before.
“The whole surface of the world has been photographed, but if you are the first in a cave, you have no idea what is around the corner,” he added.
Stanton’s passion is more like an obsession, and he has dedicated his life to it. He never married and his home in England, cluttered with homemade scuba gear, once led a Sunday Telegraph reporter to describe him as “not the most domesticated of men”.
While he wouldn’t describe cave diving as a competitive activity, he concedes that “it’s a very competitive environment, people always want to be first.”
It was a pursuit that claimed the lives of many people, some of whom Stanton knew, and he often recovered their bodies. But he doesn’t consider diving to be inherently risky.
“Just because something looks dangerous doesn’t mean you have to do it in a dangerous way,” he said. “Conduct [a car] could be dangerous if you are a dangerous driver.”
And he is by no means a thrill seeker. “If you have adrenaline in a cave, you are wrong,” he added.
He has dived all over the world, often going deeper and deeper than anyone before him. And it did it its own way, avoiding the flashy high-tech gimmicks used by some of its rivals.
Its flagship piece of equipment – a flotation device – is actually an inner tube repurposed from a motorcycle tire. If that sounds like a newbie, he’s anything but.
By the time Stanton and his dive 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. It took another five before he surfaced in a chamber at the back of the cave and recoiled from the pungent air.
“The worst part is after we find them,” Stanton reminded CNN. “We had no idea how we were going to get them out.”
Stanton says he’s dived in more difficult caves, but this particular experience was complicated by what he discovered while planning the rescue strategy. The caves were no longer in their natural state, but filled with electrical cables, pipes and diesel fuel leaking from pumps.
As he maneuvered through the dark and tiny nooks and crannies of a network of flooded caves, 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 become isolated from their crew and trapped. No one even seemed to know they were missing.
It was a difficult escape, the men were only underwater for about 40 seconds at a time, but Stanton said they were all terrified. “We manhandled them, put regulators in their mouths and only dived short distances, but they all practically panicked. I describe it as an underwater wrestling match.”
At the time, the impromptu rescue was an unnecessary distraction, and it further delayed locating the boys, but it was an experience that ultimately helped get them all out alive.
“I’m not saying it’s a miracle”
As all of this unfolded, Stanton had unwittingly become one of the main players on the stage of a global drama. Every day, the “stone-faced Brits” entered the cave in front of the hundreds of journalists and the stoic mothers of the missing boys.
He says he’s good at wearing blinders – he was able to cut out all the noise – but admits it would have been difficult had he been truly aware that millions of people had become emotionally invested, all over the world.
When asked why he thought so many people cared so much, he described the Thai cave rescue as “the ultimate reality show”.
“As morbid as it may be, it was the uncertainty,” he explained.
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 put them to sleep.
It was an extraordinary gamble, inspired by their experience with stranded gas station attendants, but as the monsoon rains intensified it was “the best of all the worst options”.
Another cave diver, Australian anesthetist Dr Richard Harris, strongly disagreed with the idea. That was until he dived in to see what situation they were in.
“There was no scientific knowledge of anyone being sedated underwater,” Stanton said.
“If you sedate someone in the hospital, they are fully monitored and intubated and there are resuscitation teams all around them.”
In the National Geographic documentary film, “The Rescue,” Dr. Harris says he felt like he was “euthanizing” the boys in the cave, and only then did the enormity of it all finally hit Stanton.
“We made the plan dispassionately, but it doesn’t prepare you for when you put a boy to sleep, knock him unconscious, put a mask on him, tie him up and drag him underwater.
“You’re the only person rocking that boy for two and a half hours. That’s when the responsibility for what you do really kicks in.”
Stanton and his team were prepared for multiple deaths, they just didn’t believe 13 successful trips would be possible. But he was wrong, after three days of intense diving, the boys and their trainer had all been successfully evacuated.
How bad was it all? “It’s hard to tell,” Stanton chuckled. “Because everything went well. Thirteen consecutive positive results have some statistical significance.”
Was it a miracle? “I’m going to say it was miraculous that all of these things happened sequentially. It was a collaboration between thousands of people, it was exceptional planning,” he said.
“It was miraculous that it all happened but I’m not declaring it a miracle.”
Teamwork saved them
Before the Thai cave rescue, Stanton wondered what to do with the rest of his life and also wondered what he had done with his life. He had retired as a firefighter and was disillusioned with diving.
Writing in ‘Aquanaut’ he lamented: “I had dedicated my life to reaching the top in this one activity which was absolutely useless, it brought nothing to anyone.”
But then the Wild Boars youth team entered the cave, and the rest is history.
He says he doesn’t believe in fate, but admits it would be difficult to argue against the existence of fate in his own story arc. “It seems like everything I’ve done has led to progressive steps,” he said.
By saving all those lives in the cave, his own life was transformed. He is now a much sought-after guest speaker, a published author and will soon be portrayed by American actor Viggo Mortensen in Ron Howard’s film, ‘Thirteen Lives’.
Remarkably, some of the boys still go to the cave to have fun, but he doesn’t see them much anymore – the language barrier makes it difficult to develop any sort 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 need to say it in words,” he said.
And while he still doesn’t 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 that played a very big part in their own survival.
“We were worried that they would challenge us to a game because we would lose by a lot of goals. It would be extremely embarrassing!”