Hero Divers Tell Of Harrowing Rescue Of Thai Soccer Team

"I'm still pinching myself a little bit, wondering if that's really what happened. It does seem too good to be true."

It was the rescue mission that captured the attention of the world -- and the heroes who saves the lives of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a Thai cave have retold their harrowing story.

On ABC's Four Corners program on Monday night, those involved in the rescue gave an  insight into the meticulous planning and terrifying risks of removing the Wild Boars from the cave.

The Decision To Extract The Team

Plans of leaving the boys and their coach in the cave for up to five months to wait out the monsoon season were quickly scrapped when the logistics of supporting them were deemed too risky.

"The food, alone - you know, we were able to get... ..with a group of, you know, Thai and British divers, some food back, but it was about a hundred meals," said U.S. Air Force Master Sargent Derek Anderson, who was involved in the planning and extraction.

"And then just looking at, like, the cleanliness, the hygiene, if they were to have any sort of an infection, like... So a lot of those initial, "Let's maybe try to wait out this water for three, four, five months," became kind of unrealistic courses of action."

The boys and their coach inside the cave. Image: AAP

Decreasing oxygen levels and forecast rain was also a problem.

It was really the understanding that the flow of water coming in and the lowering of the oxygen levels in Chamber Nine, that that's...that's what kinda forced us to a decision of, "Hey, we've got to do something now," said U.S. Mission Commander Major Charles Hodge.

It quickly became apparent that from a logical standpoint, diving the boys out of the cave was the only viable option.

Planning the Rescue

Australian veteran cave divers, Doctor Craig Challen and Doctor Richard 'Harry' Harris, who were a day away from holidaying on the Nullarbor, were called in to assist with the rescue.

Dr Craig Challen and Dr Richard 'Harry' Harris. Image: ABC

The day they arrived, Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan lost his life in the cave from lack of oxygen -- a sobering moment for all involved in the rescue and a reminder of the dangers that all faced.

Thai Navy SEALS gained an audience with the Minister of Interior, retired General Anupong Paochinda, and with the assistance of Hodge and his team they laid out the plans for rescue.

In the short amount of time the approval took, the team of rescue divers rehearsed their plans with the help of local children.

"We started to do rehearsals, you know, we did rehearsals of concept, where we would stage out exactly how we thought the cave was," Anderson said.

"We had actual volunteer children and the Thais were able to secure a pool at a school, and we went there and we actually dry rehearsed, where we had divers and children wearing the equipment they were going to use for the rescue."

Rescue Mission Begins

Those involved in the rescue did not expect that all thirteen would make it out alive.

"I was fully expecting that we would, uh, accept casualties. Maybe three, four, possibly five, would die," Hodges said.

Challen explained that it was not Harris who decided who would leave the cave first, but the boys themselves.

"That was up to the boys and the coach and the Thai Navy. We told them what was going to happen and said, "You choose your best men," and out they come. So, it was nothing to do with us," he said.

"Harry did not choose them, as has been suggested. So, I think it was their bravest guys that came out first."

The boys were given a sedative by Harris, who is an anaesthetist, to keep them calm during the rescue. Challen revealed the two Australians had been given diplomatic immunity in case the mission failed.

"They did have some sedation to keep them calm because the worst thing that could happen would be one of those guys panicking," said Challen.

British cave diver Jason Mallinson was one of the few who was tasked with guiding the boys out of the cave from start to finish.

Jason Mallinson inside the cave. Image: Thai Navy SEALS

Mallinson explained how visibility was so low, or completely non-existent in some places, he had to maintain a firm grip on the boys at all time while keeping hold hold of the grip line used to guide them through the cave.

"It was much more mentally exhausting and I had to have the lad really close to me because, if you didn't, you were bashing his head against the rocks," he said.

Rescuers holding an evacuated soccer team member during the rescue. Image: Royal Thai Navy

With low visibility and obstacles the risk of the full face mask being dislodged or flooding with water was incredibly high, and would mean certain death for the boys.

"I was confident of getting myself out, I was confident of not losing control of the line, getting the kid out. I wasn't 100% confident of getting him out alive," Mallinson said.

"Because if we bashed him against a rock too hard and it dislodged that mask and flooded his mask, he was a goner. So, that's why we had to be very slow and careful about not banging them against rocks."

STaying Focused During the Mission

The successful rescue of the first four boys was met with elation, it was important for the rescuers not to become complacent.

So it was a short celebration, then right back to staying focused, you know, staying professional, and ensuring that we continue to drive on, because we knew that that was just a small success in an overall bigger mission," Anderson said.

"And we knew that if the rain got to levels where it was before, that the rescue operation would probably come to an end, because it would just be too risky and, at that point, you're risking a lot of the health of the rescuers, too."

nlookers watch and cheer as ambulances deliver boys rescued from a cave in northern Thailand to hospital in Chiang Rai after they were transported by helicopters on July 8, 2018 in Chiangrai, Thailand. Image: Getty Images

After the second successful day of rescues, the team was reminded that the risks had not lessened and there were still five trapped inside the cave.

The second day, when we had another four for four, we pulled everybody aside and said, "This does not change a thing. "We are not gonna lower our vigilance. "We're not gonna lower our attention to detail," said Hodges.

But it was the third and final rescue when the magnitude of the rescue became apparent.

"Quite emotional, you know. As we were getting closer and closer to the entrance, I got quite emotional. I don't normally, it's just what we were doing must have come out," Mallinson said.
Moments Of Fear For Rescuers

When everyone thoguht the mission had been a success, there was one final moment of drama, when a pump in Chamber Three failed, causing the water levels to rise quickly.

"I don't know if it was kind of a supernatural intervene, but one of the pumps back at Chamber Three failed, and we had a fair amount of guys out there, waiting for the last group of SEALS to come out, you know?" said Challen.

Thai rescue team members walk inside the cave. Image: Royal Thai Navy
Reunited With THe Wild Boars

On the day before the left Thailand, the rescue divers visited the boys and their coach in hospital.

It was an emotional reunion, with most on the team believing not all would be making it out of the cave alive.

"We went to the hospital to see them yesterday. It was a really good experience. Yeah, they're all sitting up and happy and eating. Words cannot describe how happy we were," Challen said.

13 rescued soccer team members, holding a portrait of former Thai Navy Seal, Petty Officer 1st class Saman Kunan, who died during rescue efforts in Tham Luang cave. Image: Thailand Public Health Ministry

"Honestly, it was not a result that we thought we would get. We were, know, we thought there was a very real prospect that we would be doing body recoveries, rather than, patient extractions from there.