REAL LIFE

Aussie Cave Dive Hero Teaches Bravery Through Books

When Richard learned a kids’ soccer team needed help, he leapt into action
  • When Richard Harris, 58, from Adelaide, South Australia, learned 12 boys were trapped in an underwater cave, he knew he could help.
  • Working as an anaesthetist, Richard is also an experienced cave diver.
  • Inspired by the bravery of the young boys in the cave, he wrote Alfie the Brave

Here Richard tells his story in his own words

Turning on the TV, I stretched out on the lounge. ‘A Thai boys soccer team has been missing for 48 hours,’ the news reporter said.

It was June 2018, and 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, from a team called the Wild Boars, had entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave with their assistant coach after a practice.

When monsoon rains flooded the cave, the group became trapped inside.

Their bikes had been found at the cave’s entrance.

Glancing at my wife, Fiona, she already knew what I was thinking.

‘I feel like I need to go and help find those boys,’ I said.

As a dad to James, then 22, Charlie, 20, and Millie, 18, I couldn’t imagine the fear those kids were feeling.

And I had a unique set of skills that meant I could help. As well as working as an anaesthetist, I was also an experienced cave diver.

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Richard was an experienced cave diver (Credit: Supplied)

‘I feel like I need to go and help find those boys.’

Messaging one of my diving mates, Rick Stanton, who was already on the rescue team in Thailand, I told him myself and another cave diving friend, Craig Challen, were keen to help in any way.

By now, volunteers had started pumping water out of the cave to help rescuers find the boys.

Incredibly, nine days after going missing, they were found alive, huddled on a large rock above the water’s surface four kilometres from the cave’s opening.

With no food, they had survived by drinking cave water and huddling together for warmth. Their coach had also led the boys through meditation sessions to help keep them calm.

Swimming three hours in complete darkness, divers had taken food, water and medical supplies to the team to rebuild their strength. But, heartbreakingly, one volunteer, Saman Kunan, then 38, a former Thai Navy SEAL, lost his life during the mammoth effort.

Keeping in touch with Rick, I learned he’d hatched an idea to help free the group.

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Craig and me (Credit: Supplied)

‘What do you think about sedating the boys and diving them out?’ he suggested.

For multiple reasons, I deemed this unprecedented plan too risky. Still, as the rain threatened to return any day, time was running out.

There was no other option.

We’d have to try Rick’s risky plan.

A fortnight after the boys were stranded, Craig and I flew to Thailand to assist in their rescue.

‘Please be safe,’ Fiona said, kissing me goodbye.

The day after we arrived, Craig and I did a three-hour dive to see the kids.

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We spent 12 hours a day in the cave (Credit: Supplied)

‘We’re going to get you out of here.’

Following a rope that had been attached by other divers, we swam through muddy water to where they were.

Despite everything, they greeted us with smiles and waves.

‘We’re going to get you out of here,’ we told them.

While we scoped out the conditions in the cave, a US Air Force team practised dressing the boys in scuba gear to prepare them for their rescue.

The next morning, it was time to put the plan into action. After making the journey back into the cave, I administered anaesthesia to four of the boys, and British rescue divers were there to carry them out.

What the hell am I doing? I fretted, as I submerged the face of the first unconscious child into the cold water to test his mask. What if the mask filled with water and he drowned?

The divers would need to administer another four to six injections during the journey through the tunnels to keep the kids sedated.

An exhausting 12 hours later, four boys and their rescuers made it out alive.

The remaining eight kids, along with their coach, followed over the next two days, with me close behind.

As the last boy was pulled from the water, we were met by a cheering crowd.

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The boys were in high spirits

In the midst of that amazing outcome, I sadly learned that my father, Jim, aged 88, had died that same day. But I knew Dad would have been so proud of what we’d achieved.

Visiting the hospital the next day, it was good to see the boys. Freshly bathed, they were all tucked into their beds, scoffing down their first proper meal in almost three weeks.

Although separated by a language barrier, the smiles and hugs said more than words ever could.

A few days later, we flew home to our families.

Running onto the military aircraft after we landed, Fiona’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I’m so proud of you,’ she whispered in my ear.

Incredibly, in 2019, Craig and I were awarded a joint Australian of the Year award.

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My dog Alfie and me (Credit: Supplied)

The rescue mission touched the hearts of millions worldwide, and has been the subject of books, documentaries, a feature film and a Netflix series.

I’ve even written my own book, Alfie the Brave.

Inspired by the bravery the young boys showed, the book follows my six-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier, Alfie. Despite looking tough, he lacks courage, but then finds his inner hero.

Four years on, I think about that mission to save 13 people every day.

Returning to Thailand twice since, I have reunited with some of the boys and their families.

I’m so grateful to have played a part in saving so many lives.

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