LONDON • The British diver who found 12 Thai boys and their coach trapped alive in a flooded cave has described his "massive relief" as he counted them one by one, in what he called an unprecedented rescue operation.
Mr Richard Stanton, one of a pair of British caving experts who located the "Wild Boars" team, yesterday gave reporters a first-hand account of the moment he saw the boys emerge from behind a rock face onto a muddy ledge kilometres inside the Tham Luang cave, Agence France-Presse reported.
"That was a massive, massive relief. Initially, we weren't certain they were all alive - as they were coming down, I was counting them until I got to 13," he said. "We could not see them initially - they had to come round the corner."
The discovery prompted the stunning rescue of the boys which captivated Thailand and the world, with the final members finally emerging safely on Tuesday after 18 days underground.
In order to rescue the boys, divers had to contend with a treacherous escape route made up of narrow, water-filled tunnels, with the threat of heavy rain injecting urgency to the bid.
The mission was "an order of difficulty much higher than anything that has been accomplished anywhere around the world by any other cave diving team", said Mr Stanton.
Footage of the moment Mr Stanton and Mr John Volanthen discovered the 12 dishevelled and emaciated boys was viewed millions of times after it was posted on the official Thai navy Seal Facebook page, prompting hope for their rescue.
"You hear on the video, John said 'how many?'," Mr Stanton said. "I had already counted them, they were already there."
Fellow diver Chris Jewell provided new details of the operation, describing how the Thai authorities had diverted rivers on the mountaintop to help control water levels in the cave, AFP reported.
The measure "bought us additional time to get this outcome", Mr Jewell said.
Mr Stanton rejected suggestions that the divers were heroes.
"We were just using a very, very unique skill set which we normally use for our own interest," he said. "Sometimes, we are able to use that to give something back to the community, and that is what we did."
While several rescuers have told AFP that the boys were transported on stretchers for the whole hours-long extraction journey, all were unwilling to go on the record about the issue of sedation.
The presence of Australian anaesthetist and diver Richard "Harry" Harris pointed to a unique operation.
Without him "this mission may not have succeeded", Thai rescue chief Narongsak Osotthanakorn told reporters late on Wednesday.
In a Facebook post yesterday, Dr Harris lauded all those involved in the search-and-rescue mission, and credited other divers for "laying the very robust rope (in the cave) which made all subsequent dives to the soccer team not only possible, but safe".
"Following someone else's line is very much easier than finding your own way," he wrote.
He also gave credit to rescue teams who pumped water out of the cave to lower the water level and sustain the diving operations.
"I have never seen anything like it with man battling to control the natural forces of the monsoon waters," he said. "The part we played has been made out to be a lot more noble than it actually was."
"We just consider ourselves lucky to have had some skills that we could contribute to the wonderful outcome," he added.