Nine Australians involved in this month’s “miraculous” Thai cave rescue have been awarded the Order of Australia in honour of their deeds – with the two key divers given bravery awards.
The nine were reunited at Government House in Canberra for the first time since they left Thailand as heroes.
Adelaide anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris and retired Perth vet Dr Craig Challen also received the Star of Courage after being considered worthy of “higher bravery recognition because of their unique role,” said a government spokesman.
After the ceremony, the pair spoke at length for the first time about the rescue and their part in it.
“The first child was an experiment in a way. It was a good guess with a lot of advice from a lot of other specialists,” said Dr Harris of the retrieval of the first of 12 junior soccer players trapped in the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.
“It was an estimate to start with.”
The 53-year-old said he had to sedate each child and the coach so they could be attached to a dive buddy and pulled through deep water.
Dr Harris said he contacted specialists in Australia and Thailand to seek their opinions.
They were happy with the plan that we put forward. But I had never done it in the back of a cave with a malnourished skinny Thai kid before.
“That for me was the most frightening part of the week.”
Dr Challen said, “Cave diving is what we do. That didn’t require anything special. But what we are not used to is holding these little humans in our hands.
“What we did at the time made all the difference between them surviving not.”
He said that while the divers “knew we were OK”, he just “couldn’t stress enough how bleak the outlook was for those kids in there. I’m just overjoyed that it all worked out. Because it could easily have not.”
Dr Harris, 53, described the attention and awards for the rescue as “completely unexpected”.
“We’re not quite sure why the spotlight has shone on us as a pair, but it is all quite exciting.
“We just need to get back to work and stop my head swelling.”
The VIP crowd, which included Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, heard the awards recipients described as “the linchpins of the entire operation.”
The seven other men – six AFP members and one navy officer – were awarded bravery medals as well as OAMs for “acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances.”
They are Chief Petty Officer Troy Eather, Acting Station Sergeant Rob James, Leading Senior Constable Kelly Boers, Leading Senior Constable Benjamin Cox, First Constable Matt Fitzgerald, Senior Constable Justin Bateman and Leading Senior Constable
“During the World Cup, the most inspiring story about football wasn’t in Russia, it was in Thailand. The most inspiring teams were not Les Bleus, but the Wild Boars,” said Mr Turnbull.
“You made us proud. We could not have better ambassadors showing the best of our Australian values than you … extraordinary deeds were not beyond you.”
Dr Harris and Dr Challen were about to go on a holiday to the Nullarbor together when they were called to assist. They went to Thailand within an hour.
— AFP (@AusFedPolice) July 14, 2018
On June 23, 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team, aged 11 to 17, and their 25-year-old assistant coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave on 23 June after finishing football practice.
While they were exploring, they were trapped by heavy rains which partially flooded the cave.
They were found alive on an elevated rock about four kilometres from the cave entrance by British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton on July 2.
The rescue effort involved bringing groups of four boys – sedated and wearing diving gear – out at a time.
“We’re just trying to emphasise how big a part so many people played in this,” Dr Harris said at Tuesday’s ceremony.
He and Dr Challen caught up with the rescued boys in the hospital later, and had ” lovely afternoon,” he said.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get to see their parents. We were never around when they were around. But hopefully we will be able to say g’day.”