British diver relives gripping Thai cave rescue

One of the team who found the 12 young footballers tells of restaging the mission for a film

In October 2020, Rick Stanton readied his wetsuit, dive harness, cylinders and regulators. He was preparing to plunge into the underwater filming stage at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire: a six-metre deep tank, surrounded by dark walls prepared with an artificial cave passage.

Stanton, along with six other British divers, was recreating the extraordinary Tham Luang cave rescue mission in which he took part, an operation that gripped the world’s attention in 2018, and which saved 12 teenage footballers and their assistant coach who had become trapped in the north Thailand cave.

The result is The Rescue, a documentary film, which was released in the US on 8 October and opens in the UK on 29 October. It promises to re-tell the story of the rescue in nailbiting detail. “We say that in Thailand we made it possibly look a bit too easy,” said Stanton. “Every day we went in and brought the boys out. But no one knew what actually happened, so we did want to tell our story.”

Stanton, along with British cave diver John Volanthen, discovered the group alive – a dramatic moment captured in the film. They shine a torch light on the boys who, in shorts and T-shirts, are perched together on a ledge. They ask how many are still alive, counting the figures in front; “Yes, 13,” a voice calls back in English.

The mission, which meant navigating through murky waters with near zero visibility, twisting and turning to squeeze through extremely narrow passages and navigating vicious currents, was anything but simple.

Two rescuers died while trying to save the group. Saman Gunan, a former Thai Navy Seal diver who delivered air tanks to the stranded group, ran out of air during his return. Beirut Pakbara, a Thai Navy Seal, died later after contracting a blood infection during the operation.

The Rescue, made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin with National Geographic, draws on 87 hours of previously unseen footage, shared by the Thai Navy Seals, as well as interviews and re-enactments.

What comes across in the film, said Stanton, is that it was an incredible situation – and an incredible plan to get the boys out. “Years later, you just think, that was really crazy – the whole thing,” he said.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, left, and Jimmy Chin.
Creators of The Rescue, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, left, and Jimmy Chin. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

The film depicts how touch-and-go the rescue was. In one scene, a diver who is bringing a child out loses his diving rope, then starts swimming in the wrong direction. Another accidentally stabs himself with a ketamine syringe while underwater. “Luckily it wasn’t connected,” Stanton said. The children were sedated to prevent them from panicking as they were carried underwater.

Central to the film are Stanton and the other divers whose unique skills, developed from decades exploring caves as a hobby, enabled them to pull off a near impossible feat.

Filming the underwater scenes was fairly simple, said Stanton. “We said we weren’t going to act … it would look wooden.” Instead, they turned up with the equipment they used in Thailand and did exactly what they had done in 2018.

“If they tried to say, can you do this? We said, ‘no, we didn’t do that in Thailand’.”

In-depth interviews that touch on the lives and backgrounds of the divers were a bit less comfortable, admits Stanton, a former firefighter who worked in the West Midlands. He prefers focusing on the nuts and bolts of the operation.

The media frenzy at the time, which led to blanket coverage of the rescue across the world, was chaotic, he said. To cope with the pressure, he simply ignored it. “We knew that everybody in the world was looking at it … but we just had blinkers to that,” he said.

“What we did not engage with, and this is probably a good thing, is how emotionally involved everyone was in the plight of the boys.” That didn’t register until they returned home.

There were, he added, plenty of misconceptions in the media coverage regarding the operation.

Stanton, who has written a book, Aquanaut: A Life Beneath The Surface, about the operation, is satisfied The Rescue sets the record straight. “We’re meticulous people,” he said.

Though he doesn’t keep in touch with the boys, he is occasionally sent photographs of them.

Contributor

Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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