Under thundery skies yesterday, 13 international cave divers and five Thai navy SEALS locked arms and vowed: ‘We’ll bring the Wild Boar team home.’
The most experienced cave rescue team ever assembled then filed into the black mouth of the cave.
Thousands of people including soldiers, navy and police have been mobilised for the operation to save 12 young footballers and their coach from the Moo Pa team – or ‘wild boar’ in Thai.
Ninety divers took part in the rescue. But spearheading the mission yesterday were seven British diving heroes.
Two of them, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were the ones who found the boys on Monday three miles inside the Tham Luang cave complex.
Two others, Chris Jewell and Jason Mallinson, flew in this week. ‘Thai navy SEALS are hard as nails, but you need experienced cave divers to lead this,’ said a diver at the scene yesterday.
It was 10am (4am UK time) when officials decided to begin what one expert said was ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most complex rescue ever attempted in the caving world’.
As rainclouds rolled in, commanders knew it was now or never before monsoon rains flooded the cave system.
Ten of the international divers started the treacherous journey into the mountain, with the remaining three following four hours later at 2pm to operate as fresh back-up divers in the event of a crisis.
The team included Australian intensive care medic Dr Richard Harris, who was asked to join the mission by Mr Stanton, 56, a retired firefighter from Coventry, and Mr Volanthen, an IT consultant in Bristol.
Dr Harris is thought to have gone into the cave on Saturday, spending 24 hours assessing the boys’ physical and mental fitness to decide who should leave first.
Another Briton is believed to be Tim Acton, 39, from Essex, whose father John said: ‘He says there is frantic activity, but the Thai navy team and the cave rescuers from all over the world are working together as a terrific team.’
The group took less than four hours to arrive at 2pm (8am UK time) in the cavern where the boys have spent 15 days almost three miles from the entrance.
The same journey took six hours before pumps lowered the water level.
But as the divers reached their destination, the heavens opened, sending water cascading into the cave system.
Meanwhile, each boy was fitted with a full-face diving mask, rather than standard masks that only cover the eyes and nose, to reduce the risk of panic.
Experts then prepared them for the mud-clogged tunnels ahead. Each boy entered the dark water with two divers. They were told to pull themselves along a guide rope. Sometimes, a rescuer simply held a boy and hauled him along.
After energy-sapping crawls through jagged tunnels and climbs over rock walls for more than a mile, they had to confront a terrifying ‘choke spot’ – a tiny passage that turns upward sharply before sloping down, with divers having to turn as they ascend.
It is so tight, divers must remove the tanks from their backs and roll them through while guiding the children.
They then pass the spot where a Thai navy SEAL diver died on Friday.
Andy Eavis, former head of the British Caving Association, said the biggest danger was a panicking child.
He described the team as ‘the masters of the profession’, adding that they had ‘the best chance of anyone on earth’.
Mr Eavis said: ‘Diving in caves is significantly different to diving in open water. It was very important to get cave divers – people who have the mindset to operate in low visibility, tight spaces and no air space.’
The first boy made it out at 5.31pm (11.31am UK time), and at 7.47pm (1.47pm) the Thai navy SEALS announced: ‘Fourth Wild Boar out of the cave!’ The youngsters were assessed by medics at the cave entrance before being taken to hospital.