A cave rescue team which helped mastermind the safe release of a Thai football team in one of the most perilous rescue missions in history were the pride of Wales at a special awards ceremony.
Members of the South and Mid-Wales Cave Rescue Team (SMWRCT) played a vital role in the recovery of 12 boys and their coach in the depths of Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province this summer following a three-week ordeal which gripped the world.
With some of the most highly-skilled cave rescuers in the world, the team was drafted in to support an international operation, including military personnel from Thailand, America, Australia and China.
They ended up coordinating a treacherous mission which ultimately saw all members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their assistant coach reunited with their families.
The cavers received a special Platinum Award at this year’s Wales Care Awards in honour of their heroics and were given a standing ovation after it was presented by Wrexham AM Lesley Griffiths, who is also the Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs.
The national awards, which celebrated their 15th anniversary this year, are organised by social care champions Care Forum Wales.
Two members of the team, Gary Mitchell and Dan Thorne, attended the glittering awards ceremony at City Hall in Cardiff to receive the gong on behalf of the team.
“This is a team award to recognise everyone who played a part in this rescue,” said senior team leader Gary, 43, from Llwynygog, near Staylittle, Powys.
“I’m very privileged to be accepting it on behalf of everyone in the team, and all those involved in the rescue it’s self. It’s great to have our home nation recognition.
“We’re not a very public body and we don’t have a high media profile, we just get on with what we do. We mostly rescue cavers and animals. Cavers know about our services and how to get help but unless there is something major in the news in which we’re drafted in to help with we tend to stay out of the media spotlight.”
The drama unfolded in July when the group of young boys and their coach were exploring caves when Monsoon rains caused the passageways to flood, trapping them inside with little food or light for nine days.
Gary, who lives with his partner and two children, a son aged six and a girl aged two, has more than 30 years’ caving experience and has been a member of the SMWCRT for the past 15.
He was at work in his role as Wales Manager for charity Social Farms & Gardens when he received a call asking whether he could be on the next flight to Thailand. The following morning, after he had rearranged a number of work commitments, and discussed the situation with his partner, he was on a plane heading out to the scene.
A team of 10 divers and surface support specialists from the UK, including fellow SMWRCT member John Volanthen and support diver Joshua Bratchley, 27, from Malltraeth, Anglesey, were sent out to help while those remaining in Wales gathered vital equipment including special face masks which were used for the young footballers.
Gary, who is also assistant chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said: “It was massively more complicated than anything I’ve ever done before. They were 2.5km below ground and almost 1km of that was completely flooded, there were 13 people to rescue and all non divers.
“All of these factors made for the most extraordinary cave rescue which will probably – and hopefully – ever take place.”
Gary said the operation was hampered by the fact the team couldn’t physically get many people underground to where the boys and their coach were trapped. Also with zero visibility and space restrictions to contend with, pinpointing their exact location was also very difficult, and this ruled out any drilling attempts from the surface.
The perils of their mission were emphasised by the death of an experienced former Thai navy diver who was part of the original team trying to supply the stranded casualties with oxygen tanks.
“Every option we considered carried a huge risk. Our options were running out and we knew the boys could not be left to wait until the end of the Monsoon season. The decision was taken to try and get these boys out while we had a short window of opportunities. There were certainly no guarantees.”
The boys were rescued one by one with each mission taking three to four hours. They wore full-face breathing masks and were connected to a rescue diver for the underwater sections while the divers were guided by dive lines.
“There were huge elements of risk to the divers’ safety. When you add to that the fact you’re also completely responsible for a casualty the risk increases tenfold,” said Gary, who was in Thailand for a week.
“It was one of the most intense periods of my life. “It was emotionally draining to go through it but at the point that it all looked massively in our favour we felt a huge sense of relief.
“You’re trying to save a whole football team, my six-year-old son is a keen footballer so you have all the personal emotion of that as well. It was really quite surreal at times.”
Four boys were rescued on the first day, followed by four on the second and on the third rescue day the four boys and their coach were brought out. The Four Thai Navy Seals who had been supporting the boys from the early days of the mission also returned safely on that final day, assisted by the UK divers and a team of support divers from Europe.
As chairman of SMWCRT Dan Thorne, an outdoor education tutor for Oxfordshire Outdoors in South Wales, remained in the UK to gather equipment for the operation and respond to the many media enquiries the team received.
“I’m very proud of the team’s hard work and dedication over all the years and immensely proud of the near impossible achievements in Thailand of our team members and those from the wider caving community who pulled out all the stops to rescue the boys trapped in the flooded cave” said the 43-year-old, who lives in Crickhowell and is the SMWCRT’s rescue warden for the local area.
The SMWRCT was formed in 1946 and is one of the oldest voluntary rescue teams in the UK with some of the world’s longest cave networks on its patch. Its main rescue base is attached to South Wales’ Caving Club’s base at Penwyllt and the team has a further forward rescue base above Llangattock, near Crickhowell, as well as a store of equipment in Mid Wales.
The team, which consists entirely of volunteers and receives no central funding, it assists the police in the search and rescue of people and animals underground and covers more than half of Wales, with a core team of 10 Wardens and 19 executive members as well as a wider membership of some 150 rescuers.
The team has been involved in a number of high-profile searches and rescues including the Gleision Colliery disaster and the search for missing schoolgirl April Jones in Machynlleth.
Mario Kreft, the Chair of Care Forum Wales, said the organisation was proud to honour the team’s achievements. “These volunteers are the pride of Wales and without their skills and expertise there might not have been such an incredibly fortunate ending to this ordeal.
“The Wales Care Awards is about recognising the unstinting and often remarkable care provided by our unsung heroes and heroines across Wales and no one is more deserving of such an honour than this team because this miraculous rescue was all about care and caring about the plight of these boys and their assistant coach.
“We are very proud of their efforts and hope this achievement award goes someway to giving them the hard-earned recognition they deserve.”