MAE SAI, THAILAND - Specialists from Australia, Britain, Japan, China, Myanmar and Laos, including more than 30 US military personnel, joined about 1,000 Thai rescuers in a massive search-and-rescue operation after a teenage football team and their coach went missing during a cave excursion on June 23.
After 10 days trapped in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand, and after an enormous search effort that had transfixed Thailand, the missing 12 boys and their football coach were finally found in Tham Luang Cave on Monday (July 2).
The boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach went into the popular cave complex after football practice and were caught inside by rising flood waters.
Thailand mobilised around 1,000 Navy Seal (sea, air and land teams) divers, police, soldiers, border guards and officials for the round-the-clock rescue in a remote and mountainous part of Chiang Rai province near the Laos and Myanmar borders.
The search rapidly grew into an international operation, with specialist cave divers and other support flying in to help.
The two British divers who were the first to reach the boys were John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, both experts on cave rescues, according to Bill Whitehouse, vice-chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council.
They found the group along with a team of Thai Navy Seal divers.
According to the BBC, Volanthen and Stanton had been called in by the Thai authorities along with another British caving expert, Robert Harper. The trio arrived in Thailand three days after the football team went missing.
The team has avoided media all week, with Volanthen telling reporters only: “We’ve got a job to do” when he arrived at the site.
It is believed Volanthen and Stanton are part of a rescue team which helped rescue a trapped diver in France in 2010, the BBC said.
According to reports on the 2010 rescue, Stanton is a firefighter from UK's Coventry who was also involved in the rescue of 13 British cavers in Mexico in 2004.
The Daily Mail reported that Volanthen is an IT consultant from UK's Bristol, citing a previous interview with The Sunday Times magazine. In the interview, Volanthen said he started caving as a scout and that he enjoyed the logistical challenge.
The next challenge will be getting the football team out of the flooded cave in their weakened condition and without training as scuba divers.
The scrawny boys were huddled on the floor of the cave when the British divers emerged from the murky water.
As his light flickered from one boy to another, one diver called out: "How many of you?"
"Thirteen," a boy answered. "Brilliant," the diver said.
The boys' first question when the divers arrived was whether they could leave right away. They also wanted to know how long they had been in the cave.
The diver explained that the cave was flooded and that it would take some time to get them out. But he assured them that other divers would soon be bringing food and supplies.
"Many people are coming," one diver, believed to be Volanthen, said. "We are the first."
The United States sent a team of 17 Air Force rescue specialists based on the Japanese island of Okinawa to aid in the search, along with additional support staff.
According to US embassy spokesman Jillian Bonnardeaux, the team of American military personnel from the US Pacific Command, including pararescue and survival specialists, arrived at the site on June 28 to help with rescue operations.
"Operators are trained in personnel recovery tactics and techniques and procedures," she told Agence France-Presse news agency.
Captain Jessica Tait from the US Air Force’s rescue support team said there were “lots of challenges” throughout the search but that the effort had brought the country together.
“When you consider it there were lots of challenges when it comes to the elements, when it comes to the elements, when it comes to different courses of actions,” Tait told reporters.
“But you know what I saw, I saw Thailand coming together,” she added. "This is an absolute humongous success for Thailand."
A team of Chinese cave rescue experts also arrived in Thailand in June 29 to aid in efforts to find the missing group. The six-man rescue team brought rescue equipment including underwater robot, diving equipment and three-dimension imager to the cave.
Ben Reymenants, the Belgian owner of a diving school in Phuket, has been helping with the rescue and said he spent eight hours in the water on Monday.
"It's fantastic. It's amazing," he said. "But now the real work starts, how to get them out. That's the real challenge. Of course it is fantastic news, but they are very weak."
In the video of their discovery, the boys are alert as they talk to the divers. "Tell him we are hungry," one boy says in Thai. "I haven't had anything to eat."
They discuss what day it is, and the diver tells them that it is Monday. "You have been here 10 days," he says. "You are very strong." Later, one of the group says that he is very happy to see the divers arrive.
"We are happy, too," the diver says. "Thank you so much," one boy says. "Thank you so much."
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has thanked the international effort that came together to find the team.
SOURCES: THE STRAITS TIMES, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, XINHUA