Nova Scotia·Point of View

Anesthetist who helped rescue Thai soccer team reflects on risky dive

CBC producer David Pate caught up with Dr. Richard Harris, whose combined skills as an anesthetist and a cave rescue diver made him uniquely qualified for the dangerous job of helping rescue a team of trapped soccer players from a cave in Thailand last year. Harris is in Halifax this week to speak at a conference.

'It was basically down to either leave the kids in the cave to die or give it a go,' says Dr. Richard Harris

Dr. Richard Harris is an anesthetist from Adelaide in South Australia and a diver. (Submitted by David Pate)

When the call came to help rescue a team of trapped soccer players from a cave in Thailand, Dr. Richard Harris didn't hesitate, even though he knew how risky it would be.

Harris — or Harry as he's known in the dive rescue community — is an anesthetist from Adelaide in South Australia. He's visiting Halifax this week to speak at an emergency medicine conference for the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians.

And it was his combined skills as an anesthetist and a cave rescue diver that made him uniquely qualified for a dangerous job.

The drama began last June, when 12 members of a boy's soccer team and their assistant coach decided to explore a popular cave system in Thailand.

But while they were inside, heavy rains flooded the caves, leaving them trapped.

A major international rescue attempt was launched.

This undated photo from video released via the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook Page on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, shows rescuers hold an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand. (Thai Navy SEAL Facebook Page/Associated Press)

After more than a week, divers found the boys, alive and well, trapped about four kilometres inside the cave system. Finding them, it turned out, was the easy part.

Then they had to figure out how to get the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach safely out of the flooded caves.

That was when Harris got the call. Could he sedate the boys, so they could be brought out while unconscious?

"It was the only possible option left once all the other options were eliminated. So, it was basically down to either leave the kids in the cave to die or give it a go."

Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped June 23, 2018, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand. (Royal Thai Navy/Associated Press)

When I heard from a dive buddy that Harry was in Halifax and keen to make his first-ever North Atlantic dive, I jumped at the chance. 

Harris is a bit of a rock star in the international diving community. 

Seven of us climbed on board a charter boat on Sunday to head out to the Saguenay, a former Canadian navy destroyer sunk as an artificial reef off Lunenburg, N.S.

Everyone on board was keen to hear about Harry's experiences in Thailand.

Rescuers hold an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand. (Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page via AP)

And while he was very happy to talk about the rescue, the experienced divers on our trip recognized the extreme challenges that he almost underplayed.

"It was about a three-hour trip to get in each day to where the children were. The problem with the cave is that it was essentially zero visibility and very tight restrictions," he told me. 

To apply some context, the actual rescue took three days, bringing out a few boys each day. That meant that Harris had to make that three-hour trip, then stay with the children and sedate them one by one.

When they were unconscious, they were then passed off to a dive team who had to manoeuvre them through narrow passages without being able to see anything. And at the end of the day, Harris had to swim out another three hours and then return the next day and the day after to do it all again. And while he was in the cave, he had no idea what was happening to the children he had sent underwater.

"Each day, we didn't know if they had come out alive until we were out of the cave at the end of the day because there were no communications from the end of the cave," he said. "So, when I finally came out on the last day and was told that the last one had got to that point successfully, it was obviously a great relief."

In this July 3, 2018, image taken from video provided by the Thai Navy Seal, Thai boys are with Navy SEALs inside a cave in Mae Sai, northern Thailand. Unsure of their prospects for more than two weeks while they awaited rescue from a waterlogged cave, the group of kids and their coach found themselves in a life-and-death struggle that placed an acute focus on the value of teamwork, positive attitude and strong leadership. (Thai Navy Seal via AP)

Harris was the last person out of the cave system during that rescue mission.

But not everyone survived. A former member of an elite Thai military dive team died during the rescue attempt.

That rescue gripped the world for weeks in June and July 2018. But Harris was so involved in actually saving the boys that he didn't realize just how big a story it had become.

'Something in the local paper for a day or 2'

"When we got home to Australia, we thought it would it would be something in the local paper for a day or two and that would be the end of it," said Harris.

"No one was more surprised than us when awards followed and accolades and interest in the story, so it's all been very unexpected."

Harris has been travelling the world for the past year, speaking at conferences like the one that brought him to Halifax. He's also working on a book about the rescue, which is due out in November.

And wherever he goes, he likes to go diving.

"East Coast cold water diving is something I've wanted to do for many, many years, so it's really exciting to be out here.

"Three-degree water is literally twice as cold as anything I've dived before, so it's a little bit challenging for me."

When Harry speaks about our cold water being a challenge, the other divers on the boat were only too aware that he was being humble and polite. As an experienced diver and a scuba instructor, I have been in situations where it would have been easy to panic.

Being in a confined space underwater without being able to see and then getting stuck would frighten even the most well-trained diver and terrify me. What the rescue divers did in Thailand was extraordinary.

I asked Harris if he ever thought he would to do something like that again.

Dr. Richard Harris (third from left) joined CBC producer David Pate (third from right) on board a charter boat on Sunday. They dove to the Saguenay, a former Canadian navy destroyer sunk as an artificial reef off Lunenburg, N.S. (Submitted by David Pate)

"I hope not, " he said. "Once was enough."

And because he's a nice man, who just wanted to go on a couple of dives with buddies on a damp Sunday in Nova Scotia, he laughed so that I wouldn't think he was anything special.

The families of the 13 people he helped save from that flooded cave would disagree.

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About the Author

David Pate

Senior Producer

David Pate has been a journalist with CBC News for nearly 30 years. He currently produces Maritime Noon.

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