An Australian doctor’s triaging of 12 boys trapped in a cave in northern Thailand is believed to have been behind the decision on which children were removed first.
Chiang Rai former governor Narongsak Osottanakorn, who is heading the rescue operation, had said Sunday was the “perfect day” to launch the daring rescue before heavy rain was again expected to inundate the Tham Luang caves, 60km from Chiang Rai.
The initial plan was to bring the strongest out first.
But after Adelaide cave diver and anaesthetist Richard Harris, 53, assessed the youngsters and their coach that strategy appears to have been reversed, Thai media has reported.
Dr Harris risked his own life on Saturday to make the treacherous journey to the chamber where the boys have been trapped underground for 15 days.
One former colleague says there are very good reasons why British caving experts working with Thai authorities at the site asked for the help of Dr Harris.
Dr Harris, who has led record-breaking cave explorations, continues to play a key role in the international effort to rescue the remaining eight boys and their coach.
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Bill Griggs used to be Dr Harris’s boss at South Australia’s emergency medical retrieval service, MedSTAR, where the anaesthetist still works.
“To do cave-diving, you have to be all about attention to detail and you have to be meticulous,” Dr Griggs has told ABC radio.
“The combination of his medical knowledge and his cave diving skills was clearly (why) the British guys requested that he come as well.”
Dr Harris, who has 30 years of diving experience, is well known in the cave diving community, including as the leader of record-breaking missions to explore a dark and dangerous underwater cave system on New Zealand’s South Island.
In 2011 and 2012, he led a team of Aussie divers to record depths of 194 and 221 metres in what’s believed to be one of the world’s deepest cold water caves, searching for the source of the Pearse River.
He filmed the dangerous and complex mission for National Geographic.
It required the team to set up a series of survival pods at intervals to allow divers to decompress, rest and eat in the near-freezing waters along the length of an underwater river – an experience that could prove invaluable in the current rescue mission.
Dr Harris’s dive team also had to contend with fast flowing water, as is the case in parts of the Thai cave complex, in water that was near freezing point.
The rescue divers and boys in Thailand must dive, swim and climb their way to safety along a pitch-black tunnel that at points is barely big enough to allow an adult human body to wriggle through.
David Strike has known Dr Harris for more than 10 years and says his unique skill set gives the boys every chance of making it out.
“It’s an over-used term, but all of those involved are true heroes,” he told Fairfax media.
In 2011, Dr Harris had the difficult task of recovering the body of his friend, cave diver Agnes Milowka, after she ran out of air in Tank Cave at Millicent, near Mount Gambier in South Australia.
Almost 20 Australians work on Thai rescue
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has welcomed the rescue of four boys from a cave in northern Thailand, as 19 Australians continue to work on the precarious rescue operation.
Ms Bishop said the Australian contingent had been integral in the first stage of the rescue mission, with the eight remaining boys and their soccer coach still in the cave waiting to be extracted.
Ms Bishop said lessons from the initial effort would be applied as two more groups of four are brought out of the cave.