Thai cave rescue diver receives George Medal at Buckingham Palace

An expert diver who battled to save the Thai football team trapped in a flooded cave last summer has received the George Medal, the second highest civilian gallantry award.

After collecting his honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace, John Volanthen, 47, of Bristol, stressed he was only one member of a very large successful rescue team.

Mr Volanthen, along with fellow Briton Richard Stanton, 56, were the first divers to reach the 12 children and their coach, who were stranded in a cave in Thailand when monsoon rains began in June.

John Volanthen
Mr Volanthen receives the George Medal from the Queen (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

He said: “We are part of a much wider team, so while some of us have been individually recognised, it is the whole team who needs to take the credit.

“We were part of a much greater team, which was international. The credit needs to be spread around a little bit more I think.”

Other members of the team of British divers who took part in the rescue, including Mr Stanton, are to receive honours at a later date.

Despite his award for gallantry, Mr Volanthen said what the volunteer rescue divers do is “far from brave”.

He said: “What we do is very calm and calculated and it is quite the opposite of brave – it really is. We take one step forwards and it is about being sensible and careful – really that is how we were successful.”

The children, aged between 11 to 16 and members of the local Wild Boars youth football team, had cycled with their coach to the caves to explore when they became marooned inside.

Mr Volanthen, who works in IT, and Mr Stanton, of Coventry, reached them at the beginning of July.

The British divers answered a call by Thai authorities to join the vast search after the group disappeared in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Chiang Rai province on June 23.

Thailand cave rescue
Prime Minister Theresa May and the Thai ambassador with the divers and support team from the British Cave Rescue Council (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The boys’ parents reported them missing and a major search followed. After the boys were discovered, rescuers still faced the treacherous task of getting the team safely out of the flooded cave, and the persistent threat of bad weather heightened the tension in a drama that gripped the world for more than two weeks.

Seven Royal Thai Navy Seals and a medic joined the boys in the cave and the youngsters were given diving lessons as authorities continued to weigh up the two options – wait for conditions to improve, or bring the boys out as soon as possible.

Both choices were fraught with danger, and a stark reminder of the risk came when a former Thai navy Seal aiding the rescue effort died from a lack of oxygen during his mission.

With further flooding expected and oxygen running low, the boys had to be guided through nearly a mile of flooded caverns and tight passages.

The joy that greeted the emergence of the last of the team on July 10 rippled around the world.

Of the moment they first reached the boys, Mr Volanthen said: “In a cave sometimes it is easier to smell humans rather than seeing them.

“We were expecting not to find them all alive. What we smelled, we had thought were some or all of the children dead, so to find them all alive was absolutely fantastic.”

Mr Volanthen, who is also a scout leader, said: “Encouraging children into the outdoors and also into caving is a positive thing. If I can achieve anything from today, it would be good to get the message out that there is fun to be had in the outdoors.

“There is caving, climbing and adventurous activities, and who knows where it might lead?”