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Divers who rescued 12 boys and football coach from flooded Thai cave receive honorary degrees

They rescued the junior football team in July 2018 in what has been described as one of the greatest rescues of all time.

Divers who rescued 12 boys and football coach from flooded Thai cave receive honorary degrees
Cover Image Source: University of Bristol

Two British divers who helped save a young football team from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018 have been awarded honorary degrees by the University of Bristol. John Volanthen, from Bristol, and Rick Stanton, from Coventry, navigated 1.6 miles (2.5 km) of constricted underwater passageways, in near-zero visibility, against a fast-flowing, debris-strewn current to rescue 12 boys and their football coach in what has been described as one of the greatest rescues of all time. The unlikely heroes were called in by the Thai government after heavy rain marooned the junior football team in Tham Luang, a cave complex in the north of the country.


According to a press release by the University of Bristol, the highly publicized rescue involved 5000 people, led by Volanthen and Stanton. The boys and their then-25-year-old coach were discovered in the cave on July 2, 2018, nine days after the search started, and had survived with little food and no shelter. Time was of the essence as oxygen in their small air pocket was dwindling and more monsoon rains were predicted. "Having operated in difficult conditions, I was reasonably confident in being able to manage my own safety. For the boys, it was extremely dangerous. Trying to get them out was something that hadn't been done before," said Volanthen.


The rescue team finally put a plan in action to inject each of the boys and their coach with the anesthetic ketamine, the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and atropine, which slows the heart rate and reduces salivation. Once they'd administered the drugs with the help of an anesthesiologist, Volanthen and Stanton spent hours dragging the unconscious boys out of the submerged cave with a team of cave divers. Along the way, they had to inject the boys multiple times with the drug mix to keep them sedated throughout the rescue, despite having little medical training. This was an extremely risky process as the wrong dose of the drug may have caused them to wake up and panic—or never gain consciousness—and put Volanthen and Stanton before a Thai court to answer for any mishaps.


Although it was one of many cave dive operations they had undertaken—including some to recover bodies—Volanthen revealed that "the scale and complexity of this particular problem were head and shoulders above the rest." Stanton agreed, adding: "It was unprecedented, nothing really compares. People are citing it as one of the greatest rescues of all time. It was a protracted two and a half weeks and you had to think outside the box. We were literally writing the procedures, there was no manual—this had never been done before."


Volanthen, an IT consultant who remains a scout leader in his hometown of Long Ashton, and Stanton, a firefighter for West Midlands Fire Service for 25 years, both received George Medals, a nonmilitary award for gallantry, for successfully pulling off the rescue. The duo also set a record in Wookey Hole, Somerset, for the deepest dive recorded in a British cave. They were nominated for their honorary degrees by Linda Wilson, vice president of the University of Bristol's Speleological Society.

Image Source: University of Bristol

"Rick, John and the other rescue divers were being asked to perform an impossible task," Wilson said. "Fortunately, by a combination of extraordinary courage and meticulous planning, they overcame all the odds and succeeded in one of the most extraordinary rescues that have ever been attempted, ultimately bringing out all 12 boys and their coach alive despite the most hazardous conditions imaginable. No one could better exemplify the values this University prizes—resilience, courage and outstanding skills—than Rick and John, who were to save the lives of so many others, whilst risking their own lives, daily, for the 15 days of this enormous rescue effort that held the world's attention."

Image Source: University of Bristol

Volanthen and Stanton received their honorary degrees on Wednesday during the University of Bristol's summer graduations. Stanton said it was an "absolute honor" to receive the award, while Volanthen added: "It's an honor and humbling, especially considering others who have received the same and have achieved far greater things than me."

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