Ben Reymenants, a Belgian diving instructor who owns a diving business in Phuket, has revealed he and other expert divers told the commander of Thailand’s Navy SEALs to call off the cave rescue in Chiang Rai province after several dangerous failed attempts.
“We didn’t even know if the kids were still alive. We didn’t know if they were there in the place that we thought they were in,” Mr Reymenants, 45, told The New Daily.
“There were too many ‘ifs’ to risk your life.
“I called my wife and told her, ‘This is suicide’.”
Mr Reymenants said he had discussed this decision with the expert British divers on the scene and they agreed it was too dangerous to continue rescue attempts.
But the Thai Navy refused to heed their advice.
He recalled the Navy commander saying: “Ben, what do you want to tell the Thai people, that we would just leave 12 kids to die there and not do anything? I can’t do that.”
Shortly after, Mr Reymenants saw 18- and 19-year-old Thai Navy SEALs enter the submerged cave using “conventional, recreational scuba gear”.
“I could not just sit and do nothing.”
So Mr Reymenants continued to dive deeper into the cave each day leading up to the discovery of the boys on July 2.
There was a point where he became trapped and said he feared he was going to die.
“At one point I got stuck in a small restriction [narrow gap]. I felt the flow was sucking me further in. That’s when all my alarm bells went off. ‘Get out, get out, get out’.”
When all 13 trapped members were successfully retrieved, Mr Reymenants said “a rave party went on”.
“It was a miracle,” he said.
“I would like to highlight the efforts of the Royal Thai Navy SEALs who, maybe they had no idea what it was like, but they just went in and never hesitated.”
The support of the locals was “unbelievable”, he added.
“I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Another rescue volunteer, Danish diving instructor Ivan Karadzic, said the power of positive thinking was an integral part of the operation.
Speaking to The New Daily, Mr Karadzic, who assisted the rescue while holidaying in southern Thailand’s beach resort of Krabi, said every volunteer he met believed “of course we can do this”.
That attitude became key to overcoming “mission impossible”, he said.
The successful rescue of 12 Thai boys and their football coach trapped inside a cave complex in northern Thailand was indeed a “miracle”, Mr Karadzic said.
“I’m not a religious man myself but if there’s miracles in this world, this was one of them for sure.”
Despite running a diving business in Thailand, Mr Karadzic said he had never been called to retrieve a person trapped in a cave but trusted his skills could be of use.
It was a physically and mentally challenging task, he said.
“I have never been in this situation before, not with adults and definitely not with kids,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody has done anything similar to my knowledge ever.
“We all just hoped some of our skills and knowledge could be used.”
Mr Karadzic was filled with fear when he saw the first of the Wild Boars emerge from the flooded Tham Luang cave.
“When I saw the first kid, he was about 50 metres away from me. I wasn’t sure if he was injured or even alive,” he said.
“I felt very scared.
“But when I saw that he was alive and well, that changed into a wonderful feeling of relief.”
Mr Karadzic was overjoyed when he received the news that everyone had successfully made their way out.
“When I got the message that every single person, including all rescuers, were out, alive and well, [it was a] massive amount of relief and happiness.”
Mr Karadzic said he will continue to stay connected to the many friends he made along the way.
“I met some truly good people and some absolute heroes and I’m now grateful that I now have friendships that will last a lifetime.”