Divers who helped rescue the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped inside a flooded cave in Thailand have admitted there was genuine fear among the camp that not all of the soccer team would make it out alive.
As the boys prepare to head home from hospital on Wednesday night, cave diver Jason Mallinson admitted their successful extraction from the Chiang Rai cave was constantly in doubt throughout the operation.
“The first thought is they’re not going to get out,” Mallinson told ABC’s Four Corners.
The 50-year-old was one of the divers who guided boys through the murky waters and narrow passageways in a scenario deemed one of the most dangerous cave divers have ever faced.
“I wasn’t a 100 per cent confident of getting him out alive, cause if we bashed against a rock too hard and flooded his mask, he was a goner,” he admitted.
Each of the boys, aged 11 to 16 and with no diving experience, were guided out by two divers during the three-day mission.
The strategy was their last resort with impending rain and the lack of oxygen in the cave forcing their hand.
The divers even practiced with volunteer children in a school pool.
“We went there and we actually dry rehearsed wearing the equipment they were going to use, practice handing them off,” US Dive Operations Commander Major Sergeant Derek Anderson said.
There was an overwhelming feeling of fear – including among the divers.
Major Charles Hodges of the US Mission Commander was expecting tragic news for the families of up to half the team.
“I was fully expecting that we would experience casualties maybe three, four, possibly five would die,” he told Four Corners.
The risk was so dire, diplomatic immunity was negotiated in preparation for the worst case scenario.
As for who came out first, the boys themselves had the final say.
“We told them what was going to happen and said ‘you choose your best men’,” Australian cave diver Craig Challen revealed.
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While divers feared the worst during the rescue, the group trapped inside had already given up hope of even being found.
After realising they may never be found, they came up with their own escape plan using rocks to try and dig and tunnel their way out.
When they were eventually found, one of the holes was five-metres deep.
On Sunday, Thai officials released a picture of all 12 of the boys and their football coach paying their respects to ex-Navy Seal diver Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation.