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Be comfortable being uncomfortable

The inside story of the AFP dive team at Tham Luang Cave

"Once he was handed over to us, we were down at his face mask just listening for that breath..."

Electrocution and minimal air supply were just some of the entrapment hazards faced by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) dive team at Tham Luang Cave.

The six extraordinary divers spent almost two weeks diving in the dark and murky waters of the cave system, with 46 kilos of dive gear and air tanks strapped to their backs.

"Our days always started with a one kilometre hike in the cave along steep canyons of rocky 50-metre inclines and declines, to arrive at the entry of chamber 1 which was completely flooded," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said.

"We were responsible for managing chambers 2-4 to secure the evacuation route, but this required diving in coffee-coloured water. We were better off closing our eyes and feeling our way through because we couldn't see a thing underwater."

Five men in diving equipment climbing a muddy flight of stairs
46 kilos of dive gear and air tanks strapped to the divers' backs.

Fortunately, a rope had been set up by the Thai Navy Seal divers which became a lifeline for all the divers to guide them through the water that connected 9 chambers.

"The rope guided us through the chambers walking up and down slippery rock canyons, before diving back into water and tunnelling through narrow areas including along a 9-metre zigzag decent in chamber 3," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said.

"If we lost the rope underwater we then had to focus on finding that rope, otherwise our life was in danger."

A low cave roof with a diver barely above water
Senior Constable Justin Bateman tunnelling through the cave with the rope.
Five male divers, with two ready to go under water
AFP divers in the dark and murky waters of the cave system.

The initial priority was to keep the soccer boys alive, while the divers examined the various escape options with the pending monsoon always in the back of their minds.

Food supplies were passed from chamber to chamber in a daisy chain succession to reach chamber 9 where the boys were found.

"We helped carry through snack bars, army style ration packs, bottled water, cooked rice and chicken, which was tightly wrapped in plastic to keep the water out," Leading Senior Constable Kelly Boers said.

To manage the water levels across some of the chambers the AFP dive team worked closely with the Thai Navy Seals.

"The Thai Navy Seals were responsible for modifying the cave, and as a result it allowed the water to drain faster and provided easier access through some tighter spaces," Detective Leading Senior Constable Ben Cox said.

"This also allowed our team to move and install hundreds of air tanks, industrial pumps and piping into the cave – further reducing the water levels in chamber 3."

"The pumps ran on high voltage power with multiple live electrical wires running through the wet cave," Senior Constable Justin Bateman said.

"It provided power to the pumps and also some lighting but also meant we could control the flow of gushing water, which was almost impossible to swim against."

Two large stacks of air tanks and other equipment
The AFP dive team moved and installed hundreds of air tanks, industrial pumps and piping along the cave.
A large stack of silver air tanks inside the cave
The AFP dive team moved and installed hundreds of air tanks, industrial pumps and piping along the cave.

Being electrocuted by electrical wires wasn't the only risk the AFP divers faced. The rising carbon dioxide levels posed a constant threat.

Detective Leading Senior Constable Ben Cox felt the effects of the high carbon dioxide levels, making it three times harder for the body to function.

"We could feel the effects of the carbon dioxide, which affects the mind as well as the body," he said. "It causes confusion, and sometimes affected my ability to swim, so regular breaks were vital."

"We had sensors to see the O2 (oxygen) levels in different chambers. We knew it was low but we just had to support each other and be aware of fatigue," Sergeant Robert James said.

"We also had many injuries including a dislocated wrist, broken fingers, infected hands and feet, cuts and abrasions, and infected ears.

"But at the end of the day, we're police officers. Children's lives were at grave risk and we were prepared to help in any way we could."

The world was watching

The rescue caught the world's attention, after images of the boys found alive and well in the dark cave were televised, nine days after they went missing.

More than 500 journalists and media outlets crowded the outskirts of the cave in the Chiang Rai province eagerly waiting, and watching the collaborative effort of the Thai Navy Seals and international rescue partners.

The rescue effort became time critical with the monsoon rains threatening to flood the cave each day, destroying any chance for the soccer boys to survive.

Senior Constable Justin Bateman described the relationship with the Thai Navy Seals as 'absolutely brilliant', calling them 'phenomenal warriors'.

"The Thai Navy Seals never left the cave. They would sleep in the cave along different chambers and then continue on working. It demonstrated the type of commitment and strong work ethic they had to the mission," he said.

"Nothing was too much work for them. They were very inspirational. We saw the way they worked and communicated with each other, which made us work even harder. It also motivated the other international parties."

The collaborative effort of multiple countries demonstrated the practical reality that the divers were operating in – passing the boys through more than 100 pairs of hands to reach safety.

Mission possible

"The call came through that the first boy was on his way. We all held our breath until he surfaced within our chamber," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said.

The water pumps had reduced the water levels in chamber 3, which meant the divers were able to move the boys above water.

"Once he was handed over to us, we were down at his face mask just listening for that breath," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said. "He was breathing—there was instant relief."

"The single biggest risk for the soccer team was drowning," Detective Leading Senior Constable Christopher Markcrow said. "The boys wore face masks, however these were designed for adults not young boys."

During the dive component it was crucial for the rescue divers to prevent any rocks or stalactites from dislodging the boys' face masks.

"We kept the rescue moving, passing the first boy to the next group in the following chamber where Thai medics, rangers and ambulances were waiting," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said.

Another vital aspect of the divers' work was to develop and install parts of a 'flying fox' pulley system, used in chamber 2 which moved the boys through the evacuation route.

"It was pretty surreal. There wasn't time to take a breath, when the next boy arrived," Sergeant Robert James said.

"We went into work mode, and once the first four boys were through we thought 'we've got this—100 percent we can pull this off'."

Over the next 48 hours the rest of the boys slowly made their way through the cave. It's believed the soccer boys had chosen the succession of who would be evacuated first, based on who lived the furthest away. Little did they know the whole world was tracking their remarkable rescue.

A man inside a narrow chamber in the cave
Detective Leading Senior Constable Chris Markcrow climbing through the narrow decent to enter chamber 3.
A narrow section in the cave with high level of brown muddy water
Narrow tunnels across the chambers were some of the challenges faced by the divers.

The successful mission saw the AFP dive team awarded Order of Australia and Bravery medals. The team described meeting the Prime Minister as 'pretty awesome' but also a humbling experience.

"Meeting the Prime Minister, Governor General, head of the armed forces, and having our own command at the medal ceremony was a very humbling experience," Leading Senior Constable Kelly Boers said.

"I don't think we had a true understanding of the scope and scale of the incident as it was being relayed through the media. Realising the support from home was so huge it was enough to bring a tear to your eye. It made me feel truly proud to be an Australian."

"Detective Superintendent Thomas Hester and the AFP executive were incredibly supportive while we were in Thailand, and it made it a lot easier to focus on the mission of rescuing the boys," Sergeant Robert James said.

The AFP dive team was the last to exit the cave on the final day of the rescue mission, ensuring everyone had safely made their way back out.

"Trust, mateship, and being comfortable being uncomfortable, will give any team strength to keep pushing on," Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgerald said.

"Training and experience is imperative as a police diver. However, the one thing that we all have in common is the feeling of trust and reliance amongst fellow officers," Detective Leading Senior Constable Christopher Markcrow said.

"Some policing jobs are a combination of both excitement and near death experiences. But over time you learn not to fear or panic, but to treat it as a puzzle and work your way out."

"After we all exited the last chamber, everyone started clapping and cheering, and celebrating the success of what we thought would be mission impossible," Sergeant Robert James said.

"It was a great moment and something that we will never forget."

A man standing wearing diving equipment
Senior Constable Matt Fitzgerald and Senior Constable Justin Bateman.