THE Australian diver whose vital role in the Thai cave rescue undoubtedly saved many of the boys’ lives has spoken for the first time since the mission’s success.
Adelaide anaesthetist and underwater cave explorer Richard Harris has said he’s no hero and the true thanks should go to the Thai Navy SEALs and the kids themselves.
But the SEALs beg to differ and have taken to Facebook to thank Dr Harris personally and Australia as a whole for their help in the rescue effort.
It’s been said that Dr Harris — known as Harry — was the last person to leave the Tham Luang caves after the Wild Boars soccer team was rescued.
Speaking on Wednesday via Skype to Malcolm Turnbull, Dr Harris brushed off the Prime Minister’s praise.
“The big heroes in this are the children and the Thai Navy SEALs who were looking after them,” he said.
“They are the toughest blokes and kids I have ever had the privilege to meet and without them being in the state they were in, we couldn’t have done anything; that's where the credit lies.”
Mr Turnbull asked Dr Harris to describe the trickiest section of the huge cave system he needed to navigate.
“The last couple of hundred metres underwater is very difficult to find your way through. For the entire dive at the back of the cave there’s zero visibility (due to) mud and clay,” he replied.
“So you’re following the (guide) line with your hand and you basically might as well have your eyes closed with a small boy being cradled in your arms and feeling your way through rocks and posting yourself sideways through little holes.”
The PM concluded the call by thanking Dr Harris and the other Australians on the ground in Thailand which included police officers and Defence personnel.
“You’re an inspiration to Australia, you did Australia proud,” he said.
Mr Turnbull also acknowledged the desperately sad news Dr Harris had to face just hours after the team were rescued — the death of his father overnight.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday the Thai Navy SEALs also mentioned the tragedy.
“Our condolences to Dr Richard Harris. We wish you the best for this very tough time.” the post said.
“We never thank you enough for what you’ve done for the kids, their families and Thailand. Thank you, Richard and thank you, Australia.”
In a statement his colleague, MedSTAR Director of Clinical Services Dr Andrew Pearce said it was “with great sadness Harry’s dad passed away last night”.
“All the team at SA Ambulance Service is incredibly proud of Dr Harris,” the statement read.
“It has been a tumultuous week with highs and lows. We are delighted that Harry and the boys are safe and that he was able to play such a remarkable role in the Australian response.
“Harry is a quiet and kind man who did not think twice about offering his support on this mission.
“It is with great sadness that I confirm that Harry’s dad passed away last night a short time after the successful rescue operation in Thailand.
“I have spoken with Harry. This is clearly a time of grief for the Harris family, magnified by the physical and emotional demands of being part of this week’s highly complex and ultimately successful rescue operation.”
Speaking on Wednesday from Chang Rai, close to the caves, Commander Glenn McEwan of the Australian Defence Force praised Dr Harris and said he had been “quintessential in achieving success in this operation”.
The 53-year-old gave up a family holiday and made his way to Northern Thailand, where he scuba dived 4km through cold, dark and narrow passages to reach the boys and assessed them as medically fit to attempt the risky escape mission.
Mr Harris was one of the 19 divers who helped escort the final five members of the group out of Tham Luang cave, in the toughest rescue operation of the past few days.
Using his 30 years of experience, the South Australian assessed which of them should be saved first and checked up on their physical conditions as they were escorted through the cave’s perilous network to safety.
As each of the boys swam out one-by-one, he was there to give them a medical sign-off and he only left once everybody was out safely.
Now there are calls from hundreds of Australians on social media for the expert medic and cave diver to be handed the Australian of the Year award for his heroics in the incredible rescue mission.
“If ever a bloke deserved to be Australian of the Year it’s this man,” wrote one commenter on Twitter. “He’s what embodies the true spirit of this country.”
“Words can’t even describe how proud this guy makes me feel to be Australian,” wrote another. “In a world where we sometimes honour people for the most meaningless reasons, surely it’s time we recognised a real-life hero like Richard Harris.”
British divers specifically requested the talented medic for the rescue operation which claimed a life of one of the cave divers taking part.