14/07/2018 11:50 BST

Thailand Cave Rescue Leader John Volanthen Describes 'Bittersweet' Mission

The boys are expected to be released from hospital on Thursday.

Linh Pham via Getty Images
British cave-diver John Volanthen walks out from the Luang Nang Non Cave in northern Thailand during the rescue mission to free a football team and their coach

The man who led the expedition to free a young football team trapped in a cave in Thailand has downplayed the significance of the rescue mission that transfixed people around the world for 17 days. 

In his only solo interview, Briton John Volanthen was asked by the BBC if he would admit that the rescue was “remarkable”, but conceded only that, “I can see it was a first”.

The ‘Wild Boars’ and their coach were missing for nine days - since June 23 - in the Luang Nang Non Cave in northern Thailand before they were discovered by Volanthen and fellow Briton, Rick Stanton.

The last of the boys was freed on July 10 and they are expected to be discharged from hospital on Thursday. 

Volanthen told the BBC of the moment he found the boys, saying that a lot of media reports had suggested that it was through “luck” which was “absolutely not the case”.

Volanthen said due to the size of the young boys he was concerned “how well they’d hold up in the journey”.

“Alive in a cave and alive outside of a cave are different things,” he said. 

The rescuer told of carrying the children out of the cave like a “shopping bag”.

“Some times you would hold it close to your chest if the passage was narrow and deep. If the passage was low and wide you’d hold it to the side,” he said. 

Volanthen said the death of Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died while replenishing oxygen canisters along the escape route, made the rescue “bitter sweet”.

 “It is a shame with the rescue being so successful... that adds a bittersweet flavour. It was a tragedy.”

Footage showing one of the young boys being rescued from the caves

After landing at Heathrow Airport on Thursday, Volanthen spoke of the “relief” he felt at seeing the boys brought to safety in an equally humble way. 

“We were very pleased and we were very relieved that they were all alive but I think at that point we realised the enormity of the situation and that’s perhaps why it took a while to get them all out,” he told Sky News.

He added: “We are not heroes. What we do is very calculating, very calm. It’s quite the opposite.”

After arriving back in the UK, fellow British diver, Rick Stanton denied he was a hero saying that he was simply using a “very unique skill set” to “give something back to the community”.

“Are we heroes? No, we were just using a very unique skill set, which we normally use for our own interests and sometimes we are able to use that and give something back to the community,” he said.

“That’s what we did.”

Stanton told reporters at a press conference: “This was completely uncharted, unprecedented territory and nothing like this has been done. So, of course there were doubts.

The boys are expected to be discharged from hospital on Thursday

“I knew that we had a good team, with good support from the Thai authorities, the caving community and rescue organisations, so we had the best we could do to make a plan work.”

Stanton would not describe how his team rescued the children, describing it as “too detailed for this point in time”.

“The most important thing to have was a full face mask which had been applied inside with positive pressure to enable them to breathe and to be relaxed enough so not to feel any anxiety during the process,” he said.

“There was a lot of chaos but we were so task-orientated, focused and we blanked that out and carried on with the job in hand, step by step, until we achieved success.”