‘I helped save 13 young footballers trapped in a cave – but life still goes on as normal’

John Volanthen was one of the first to reach the trapped boys (Picture: SWNS)

John Volanthen is humble. He lives quite a normal life in Bristol, with a young son, working as an IT consultant.

But six years ago he was thrust onto the world stage after helping in the rescue of 13 young Thai football players and their coaches from an underwater cave in Tham Luang.

What began as a hobby he loved in Scouts eventually allowed him to help save their lives.

A keen problem solver, John offered his assistance to the Thai authorities to help rescue the boys, who had become trapped after the cave filled with water.

It was an event that caught the world’s attention. For nine days, no one knew if they were dead or alive.

The team’s trip to the Tham Luang cave on that fateful day six years ago was meant to be a treat for the boys, to celebrate the 17th birthday of teammate Peerpat ‘Night’ Sompiangjai. 

Rescuers were concerned it would be a retrieval mission (Picture: AP)

The boys were trapped inside for weeks (Picture: Reuters)

The kids knew its nooks and crannies well, and the excursion was intended to be a brief one.

It ended up lasting 17 days.

The situation was tricky – as experienced as the Thai Navy were in water, they were not particularly skilled at cave diving, especially in an environment as enclosed, dark and unforgiving as Tham Luang.

John told Metro.co.uk: ‘Every cave rescue is a different situation requiring a different set of problems to be solved.

‘Most cave diving rescues are relatively quick. I think this one was very unusual because it happened over such a long period of time because it was so protracted.’

After seeing the incident on television, John and other British cave divers, Vern Unsworth and his rescue partner Richard Stanton, offered their support to the Thai government and quickly flew out.

The rescue operation had begun.

Smelling before seeing

The cave complex was sprawling (Picture: AFP)

John is familiar with caves – their scents, smells, and formations. But in most cave diving rescues, he says it’s a matter of body retrieval, not rescue.

‘We thought we’d smell decomposing bodies,’ John said ‘When we found the boys, the smell was terrible – but it was just excrement.’

After emerging from the water, John was greeted by the football team.

He recalled: ‘I simply couldn’t believe it. It seemed unbelievable to me that they were all alive. It just seemed incredibly unlikely.’

Finding the lads was one thing, but getting them safely out of the nearly 4km long cave with 30m of flooding would prove to be a daunting task.

A rescue control map showed just how much was at stake during the mission (Picture: PA)

The caves were dark, damp, and hard to navigate (Picture: AP)

‘We were trying to brainstorm ideas and we talked about being able to move around equipment in the cave. The initial idea was well, “What if we treat the boys like they are the equipment?”‘

The group eventually decided to sedate the boys to help better manouver them through the tight and dangerous cave.

Visiblity in the flood water was sometimes just a few centimetres, John explained.

‘You had a hold of a child with one hand, and were trying to find your way through the cave with another.’

It took three days for all 12 children, and their coach out the caves, one at a time. They had been trapped in the cave for 17 days in total. Miraculously, they all survived sedation. 

Life after the cave rescue

Six years after the rescue, John lives a normal life (Picture: PA)

What stands out most to John was the collaboration between different countries, divers, medical professionals and more.

He said: ‘It was a team effort at almost every level. It just shows what can be achieved when a large group of people from all sorts of different countries come together and apply themselves to something. 

‘If everybody comes together and tries to do the right thing, then these sort of things can be achieved.’

Upon his return to the UK, John was awarded the George Medal for his efforts.

Now living 5,633 miles away from Tham Luang, John still cave dives and works as an IT consultant in Bristol.

‘I have a young son, but I’ve been lucky enough where I’ve seen one or two different aspects of the world that I might have not seen otherwise,’ he says.

‘I’ve had a brief taste of media exposure, and I realise it’s not something that I particularly enjoy, but life has gone on as normal.

‘There’s still bills to be paid, there’s still work to be done. That’s that’s how it works.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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