By Henry Nichols
LONDON (Reuters) - British divers involved in the "unprecedented" rescue of 12 schoolboys from a flooded cave in Thailand said on Friday they were not heroes, but were just happy their specialised skills could be of help.
All 12 of the boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach were brought to safety over the course of a three-day rescue organised by Thai navy SEALs and an international team of diving and caving experts, including 11 from Britain, that ended on Tuesday.
"Are we heroes? No," said Rick Stanton, one of the two British divers who found the boys.
"We're just using a very unique skill set, which we normally use for our own interest and sometimes we're able to use that to give something back to the community," Stanton, from Coventry, central England, told reporters at London Heathrow Airport.
The boys and their coach had gone into the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, for a quick excursion after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
(GRAPHIC: Thailand cave rescue - https://tmsnrt.rs/2KR2zRj)
Stanton and John Volanthen found the boys on July 2, squatting on a muddy mound in a flooded chamber 4 km (two and a half miles) inside the complex, nine days after they went in.
"That was a massive, massive relief. Initially we weren't certain they were all alive and as they were coming down I was counting them until I got to 13," said Stanton.
"All we could think about was how we were going to get them out, so there was relief tempered with uncertainty," he said.
“This is completely uncharted, unprecedented territory. nothing like this has been done before, so of course there were doubts, but I knew that we had a good team.”
The boys, aged 11 to 16, had to dive for part of their journey out before they were put on plastic toboggan-like stretchers and carried, at times through steep, rocky tunnels, with ropes strung overhead.
"Diving conditions were extremely challenging," said cave diver Chris Jewell.
"We are delighted with (the) successful outcome."
Peter Dennis, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, said the operation was "one of the most extraordinary cave rescues we have seen."
He paid tribute to Samarn Poonan, a former Thai navy diver who died during the operation.
"We must remember the tragedy of Samarn," Dennis said.
(Reporting by James Davey and Isabel Woodford; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)