The greatest surprise was that they were still alive. All 13 of them: the Wild Boars football team and their coach.
Veteran British cave diver John Volanthen can still summon up the disbelief he felt when he found the boys, trapped for ten days deep inside a labyrinth of flooded caves in Tham Luang, Thailand, after the world had written them off as dead.
'I was incredulous. It just seemed so improbable,' he says now.
He remembers the first clue. In the ink-black darkness of the cave it was a smell — 'heavy and ripe; strong enough to twist the stomach' — that first alerted him and long-time diving partner Rick Stanton to what they assumed would be a graveyard.
'Oh, no, Rick. That's rotting flesh,' said John. Except it wasn't.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Veteran British cave diver John Volanthen can still summon up the disbelief he felt when he found the boys, trapped for ten days deep inside a labyrinth of flooded caves in Tham Luang, Thailand, after the world had written them off as dead
'It was hard to take in the reality of what was happening. A group of boys had gathered silently at the water's edge and were pointing at us. I'd prepared myself to find corpses or at best to go through the ghastly business of separating the breathing from the dead. I'd expected some bodies in various stages of decomposition.'
But there they were. Alive. Twelve boys, aged 11 to 17, and their 25-year old coach.
John, 49, an IT consultant and Scout leader from Bristol with a 14-year-old son of his own, is a likeable, unassuming man, not given to heroics or exaggeration. He still grapples with the miracle of how the boys did not die.
'It seemed unthinkable they'd survived. Yet there they were. I shouted: 'How many of you?'
It was John's voice that reverberated round the world in a widely broadcast video in June 2018: the two divers had been given a camera by the elite force the Thai Navy SEALs and asked to film whatever they encountered.
Rick by then was counting. He got to 13. 'Brilliant,' said John.
Oscar-winning Ron Howard (director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind) is now filming a $55million movie, Thirteen Lives, for release in 2022, based on the rescue. John, a consultant on the film, is played by Colin Farrell (pictured above) and the two have become Zoom buddies over lockdownInsurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
'The boys shuffled towards us like ghouls, T-shirts hanging from malnourished bodies, waving, pointing, amazed that anyone could have emerged from the chilly underground floodwaters, impenetrable to rescue attempts. Until now.'
'Thank you,' yelled one. 'Are we going out today?' said another, waving into the darkness. They had a smattering of English. The smallest boy in the group slumped to the ground and sobbed silently.
'Later, I learned they hadn't eaten for a week and had survived by drinking filthy flood water, perched, in squalid conditions, on a ledge they'd hacked out on an incline above the water.'
John and Rick had simultaneously to raise the spirits of the terrified boys and reassure them that rescue — although not immediate — would be imminent.
'I expect they were looking at us, a couple of middle-aged blokes floating in the water, thinking: 'We're really in trouble now.' ' He laughs. 'I tried to let them know there were armies of people outside, all helping to get them out.
'We did some cheering as well, to raise morale, as I would with my Scout groups.'
The next day, using guide ropes they'd set out to mark the route to the cave, they brought supplies of food and fresh water.
Now, of course, the real work began: John and Rick, 59, faced the daunting task of devising a way of evacuating 12 boys and their coach through a tortuous series of caves and flooded subterranean passageways without sacrificing any lives — their charges or their own.
'I was already tired, overwhelmed and drained after a tumultuous week, having dived, pulled and crawled through the underground maze in search of the boys for hours on end,' says John.
Now he had to take on a task that had already defeated some of the most experienced Special Forces operators in Thailand as well as military divers from around the world.
But while so many others had failed, two cool-headed, middle-aged men succeeded: all 13 of their charges were brought out of the caves unscathed. John and Rick, garlanded with gratitude from the Thai people, also both won the George Medal, the UK's second highest award for gallantry, for their efforts.
The story of how they masterminded the escape is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.
Indeed, Oscar-winning Ron Howard (director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind) is now filming a $55million movie, Thirteen Lives, for release in 2022, based on the rescue.
John, a consultant on the film, is played by Colin Farrell and the two have become Zoom buddies over lockdown.
They make an unlikely pair: the brooding Irish heartthrob and his self-effacing real-life alter ego who initially joked that Rowan Atkinson ought to play him.
It was John's voice that reverberated round the world in a widely broadcast video in June 2018: the two divers had been given a camera by the elite force the Thai Navy SEALs and asked to film whatever they encountered. Rick by then was counting. He got to 13. 'Brilliant,' said John
'It's quite funny,' says John. 'I take my scruffiest clothes on cave diving trips and Colin's wardrobe is now filled with copies of my worst clothes.
'He says he can cope with the awful T-shirts but he's resisting the crocs. I'm not known for my style.' He laughs.
'I sent him an article saying crocs were coming back in. He said: 'I never knew they were in in the first place!'
'As the movie has gone on, Colin's got into my character. He's interested in detail. He's taken up running. (I run marathons and ultramarathons).
'We've talked about parenting. He's in a similar position to me.'
John shares care of son Matthew, 14, with his ex-wife Annabelle, from whom he amicably separated ten years ago. For the past two years, he has lived with partner Claire, 45, a healthcare worker. As Matthew lives a short bus ride away, they see him often.
'Colin's taking very seriously the fact that the person he's playing exists and he picks up my mannerisms and phrases. I have a capacity for understatement and he's identified that,' he says.
Indeed, John is the sort of low-key hero for whom the phrase 'gung-ho' does not apply. He seeks no recognition and, when I ask him to describe his temperament, he musters: 'Steady. Aware. Diligent. I'm not a panicker.
'Lots of people try to be 'an inspiration'. I'm not sure that's what I am or would want to be.'
He has written a book, soon to be published, about the rescue; a nail-biting account of the dramatic and extraordinary mission.
He tells me: 'It was the most complicated logistical problem I've ever been involved in, with very high stakes. I desperately hope no problem ever eclipses it.'
Yet he would never call himself a hero. 'You just start, take the first step and get on with it. Cave diving is about lots of boring things done meticulously. It's not an adrenaline sport. If you're feeling that, something's wrong.'
He was watching the unfolding drama in the Tham Luang caves on TV in June 2018 when