THOUSANDS of people have called for Australia’s two hero divers involved in the Thai cave rescue to be given the nation’s highest civilian bravery award.

More than 32,000 supporters have signed a petition calling for Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris and his friend, retired vet Craig Challen to be given the Cross of Valour, or CV.

The Cross of Valour is Australia’s highest bravery decoration and civil award. Since it’s inception in the Australian Honours and Awards system in 1975, the Cross of Valour has only been awarded on five occasions in the last 42 years.

The last time it was given out was in 2003, when Senior Constable Timothy Britten entered a bombed Bali nightclub to rescue a badly injured woman, and then continued to search for survivors. Richard Joyes also went into the club.

The award is a civilian version of the military Victoria Cross. The petition is calling on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to nominate Dr Harris and Mr Challen for this highest of honours.

It comes as rescue leaders revealed just how touch and go the mission was as the boys sitting on a tiny ledge started becoming drowsy as oxygen levels fell, with fears they would slip into comas.

Rear admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, said that when they realised time was running out for the Wild Boars, who had already been found but were becoming weak and distressed, they turned to their international partners.

“Oxygen was decreasing and the kids were becoming drowsy,” Apakorn said. “What will we do? We had such time constraints. Finally, we got a plan from the international divers. I’m so glad. We approved it.”

The final plan involved placing hundreds oxygen cylinders and a guide rope along the route — and just going for it.

But first Dr Harris was tasked with giving the boys a mild sedative — the Thai prime minister said the drug was an anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety medication — so they could relax on the journey out. All they had to do was trust in the divers and let it happen.

Deputy SEALs commander, Captain Anan Sudawan, revealed how after the first pair of British divers reached the boys on a five-and-a-half hour journey, they had to make the agonising decision to leave the boys on the 5m x 2m ledge, promising to return.

When they arrived back at the base camp, Captain Anan sent four Thai Navy SEALs to the ledge, with food, water and foil blankets.

This caused new anxiety because the SEALs took 23 hours to return after reaching the boys. And only three of them returned. Lieutenant-Colonel Park Lohachoon, a diving medic, chose to stay with them.

Park, who would be the last man out of the cave when the rescue was completed, is now a Thai national hero.

Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn said: “If the level of oxygen got to 12 per cent, the boys would go into a coma. Normal people need oxygen at 20 per cent, but there was on 15 per cent. And water was coming. Here in the north, it’s like a waterfall.

“We had to make the mission impossible a mission possible.”

Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris has spoken about the miraculous rescue.

The Adelaide anaesthetist and experienced cave diver, who has been hailed a “hero of the Thai people” and an “extraordinary Australian” for his pivotal role in the dangerous rescue mission, sent out a message of thanks for the support that had been pouring in since the final boys were brought to safety on Tuesday night.

In a statement with his dive partner, West Australian vet Craig Challen, Dr Harris said: “The favourable outcome that has been achieved is almost beyond our imagination when we first became involved in this operation.”

“We are humbled to have been able to provide our expertise and experience to assist in this international operation led by the Thai government.”

Heartfelt messages of support have been flooding in for Dr Harris, who made the dive into the cave for each rescue mission to assess the boys’ fitness to make the journey to the surface and to administer a small sedative to keep them calm on the way out.

There has also been an outpouring of support for the 53-year-old after it emerged yesterday his father had died just hours after the last of the boys were successfully rescued.

In their statement today, Dr Harris and Dr Challen said their “thanks and greatest admiration” went to the British lead divers on the mission and the support divers from the EU, US, China and Australia who helped pass the boys to safety in a “daisy chain” out of the cave.

They also acknowledged the “vast number of participants from military and civilian organisations in various support roles”.

“Additionally, we were only a small part of an Australian contingent comprising personnel from DFAT, AFP, and ADF who performed valuable roles,” the duo said.

“We particularly would like to thank the players and their coach for placing their trust in us. We wish them a speedy recovery. Thank you.”

The retired Perth vet who helped Dr Harris was pessimistic before the mission too place, according to his partner.

Craig Challen was packing to go on a holiday to the Nullarbor with his diving buddy Richard ‘Harry’ Harris on Thursday last week when his friend called and quickly changed their plans. The pair were on their way to Thailand within an hour.

“He did hold concerns for the whole situation. I think he went over there with a bit of a pessimistic view - he thought it was going to be a real challenge to get the boys out alive,” Heather Endall told ABC radio.

The revelation comes as rescue leaders showed vision of most of the boys smiling and waving to a camera as their parents, one of them crying, looked in at them through a glass partition at Chiangi Rai hospital.

The boys were lying in bed, or walking about, dressed in hospital whites, healthy but awaiting quarantine clearance as ecstatic relatives watched and waved from behind the glass barrier.

The 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand made the V-for-Victory sign from their hospital isolation ward where they are recovering from the 18-day ordeal.

Also revealed was footage from deep within the cave system, showing a boggy, dank and dark-brown underground river, into which torchlight could barely penetrate.

Rear Admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, said they had considered drilling through the mountain to get the boys, but found it would have been “like performing a herculean task”.

“We analysed and discussed how we were going to help these kids. We found our strengths and got the greatest divers in the world to come and help us.”

Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn said a life had been sacrificed to make the mission a success.

“We have lost petty officer first-class Saman Kunan. We will remember him as a hero. We used his determination to push through and make this a success.

“I have also been informed by the Prime Minister, who received a call from Ms Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, on the passing of Dr Richard Harris’s father.

“I would like to express my deepest condolences for his great loss, and thank him for his contribution, for without him this mission would not have been a success.”

Narongsak revealed that as concerns grew about failing oxygen and rising carbon dioxide in the cave, the pressure was on.

Thai Navy SEALs “told us the kids are getting weaker, we have to get them out of the cave”.

“But for this task we had to put in the best performance, so we put oxygen tanks in many spots in the cave. We had to make the decision.

“One of the really important things was the pumping teams. Both inside the cave and outside the cave, they were really important. And there was another team diverting water.”

The boys will be monitored for some time to come to ensure they are mentally strong.

“The children should not be blamed for the incident,” said Narongsak.

“What happened was a misfortune that no one would like to see happen.”

He did not elaborate on the exact details of how and why the boys entered the cave with their coach.


More footage released by the Thai Navy SEALS on Facebook has revealed just how treacherous the rescue was and the elements they were up against. You can watch it below.

It took 13 countries to pull the 13 Wild Boars out of the flooded cave — along with some 2000 people and a whole lot of planning, good fortune and goodwill.

The images of the boys, found alive and well, perched on a muddy shelf amid rising waters nine days after they were lost on June 23, was initial cause for celebration.

But those who know the treachery of underground caves knew a huge challenge lay ahead.

Heavy rains were coming; there was a good chance the boys were already suffering from pneumonia or waterborne disease; and the Tham Luang’s 10km cave system was not even properly mapped.

Thailand’s friends reacted immediately and the Chiang Rai region’s departing governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, made sure they were welcome — so long as they were true professionals, not attention seekers.

Divers and disaster experts were quickly identified from within Australia, Britain, China, USA, Canada, Laos, Israel, Belgium, Myanmar, Finland, Denmark and Japan and converged on the rugged Chiang Rai region of northern Thailand to give the help urgently needed.

More than 100 Royal Thai Navy SEALs were already in place, having made preliminary expeditions into the cave, fast becoming inundated with rushing waters. They were backed by 1000 Thai military, plus hundreds of volunteers.

All options were on the table, including trying to locate a shaft to tunnel down to the boys. But diving them out was the fastest, and riskiest, method.

As university types cautioned against the water extraction, Narongsak knew it was the best hope.

A strategy was quickly agreed on. Air tanks would be positioned along the route. A safety guide line would be fastened through the tunnels.

A core group of 19 divers to rescue the boys were identified. And for each plan, a second and third contingency put in place should any link in the chain fail.

The six AFP and one Defence divers would not be among them — and that was no slap in the face.

They had been involved in exploratory dives but when duties were divided up, it was decided they would be located at base camps two and three, within the cave, moving tonnes of equipment, including food and tanks.