Aussie heroes ‘humbled’ after cave rescue

THE Australian divers who played a crucial role in the Thai cave rescue have opened up about the dramatic rescue that was "beyond (their) imagination".

Expert cave diver Dr Richard Harris and his friend and fellow diver Craig Challen's incredible efforts in the Hollywood-like mission to save the trapped Thai schoolboy s have seen the pair celebrated as Aussie heroes.

In their first public statement, the pair thanked people for the messages of support they had received following the extraction of the boys from the cave.

"The favourable outcome that has been achieved is almost beyond our imagination when we first became involved in this operation," the pair said in a statement. "We are humbled to have been able to provide our expertise and experience to assist in this international operation led by the Thai government."

Adelaide anaesthetist Dr Harris gave up a family holiday to take part in the mission and was the last person to leave the Tham Luang caves after the Wild Boars soccer team was rescued.

However, he was just one of a small team of expert Aussie cave divers who have reached an almost legendary status in their field due to their expertise and boundary-pushing missions.

Called the "Formula One of diving" by some in the diving world, the Aussie group, known as the Wet Mules, also features retired Perth vet Mr Challen, who also played an integral role in the cave rescue that captivated the world.

Craig Challen with dive partner Dr Richard Harris after they completed the mission. Picture: Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs
Craig Challen with dive partner Dr Richard Harris after they completed the mission. Picture: Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

"As a large part of our chosen pursuit of cave diving seems to revolve around ferrying heavy objects in and out of caves, submersing ourselves in frigid waters for many hours and generally abusing our bodies in a multitude of ways, we were beginning to take on the persona of the wet mule itself!" the Wet Mules website says.

"Stubborn, strong of back and oblivious to pain: These are the qualities of the exploration cave diver!"

According to the Mules' website, a tight bond has been formed between its few members as they "lurch from crisis to crisis" - using their high-level skills, top-of-the-range equipment and passion for exploration to conquer the toughest challenges.

The name comes from southern American expression "enough money to burn a wet mule" and relates to their philosophy - that if you throw everything you've got at something, you can overcome the most difficult problems.

They have built a formidable reputation for their daring dives at some of the world's most dangerous caves, including Cocklebiddy Cave in Western Australia and the Pearse River on New Zealand's South Island.

The website also shows that the Mules have undertaken difficult diving projects in Thailand before Dr Richard Harris was given the call-up for the mission to save the Wild Boars soccer team.

Dr Harris is said to have asked his close friend Dr Challen to help on the arduous mission in northern Thailand, which led to the death of one cave diver but resulted in all 12 boys and their coach being safely evacuated.

NSW diving consultant David Strike told ABC that close personal relationships like that between the two Aussie heroes were vital in difficult dives.

11/07/2018: Australian DFAT staff celebrate with Doctor Richard Harris (in light blue) and his dive buddy Craig Challen (next to him on the left) after they contributed the successful rescue of 12 soccer players and their coach from a cave in Thailand.Source:Supplied
11/07/2018: Australian DFAT staff celebrate with Doctor Richard Harris (in light blue) and his dive buddy Craig Challen (next to him on the left) after they contributed the successful rescue of 12 soccer players and their coach from a cave in Thailand.Source:Supplied

"Like most divers, you tend to get used to a particular diving partner," Dr Strike said.

"Telepathy almost comes into play. You become very comfortable with a particular dive buddy - you know how they're going to react in a certain situation."

There were calls for Dr Harris to be handed the Australian of the Year award yesterday, after the mission, which saw the 53-year-old dive many times through the 4km of cold, dark and narrow passages to reach the boys and assess them medically in order to facilitate the risky escape.

Even when the boys were out safely, he remained inside the mountain making sure everybody involved in the mission was OK. Tragically, he found out his father had passed away just moments after he finally left the cave.

In their statement, Dr Harris and Mr Challen thanked the British divers who led the operation, along with team members from the EU, US, China and other Australians.

"We particularly would like to thank the players and their coach for placing their trust in us. We wish them a speedy recovery," they said.

Speaking on Wednesday via Skype to Malcolm Turnbull, Dr Harris brushed off the Prime Minister's praise.

"The big heroes in this are the children and the Thai Navy SEALs who were looking after them," he said.

The team of doctors Dr Harris worked with plus two DFAT officers after they completed the mission. Picture: Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs
The team of doctors Dr Harris worked with plus two DFAT officers after they completed the mission. Picture: Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs

"They are the toughest blokes and kids I have ever had the privilege to meet and without them being in the state they were in, we couldn't have done anything. That's where the credit lies."

Mr Turnbull asked Dr Harris to describe the trickiest section of the huge cave system he needed to navigate.

"The last couple of hundred metres underwater is very difficult to find your way through. For the entire dive at the back of the cave there's zero visibility (due to) mud and clay," he replied.

"So you're following the (guide) line with your hand and you basically might as well have your eyes closed with a small boy being cradled in your arms and feeling your way through rocks and posting yourself sideways through little holes."


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