The nine Australians who played a vital role in the astonishing rescue of 12 Thai footballers and their coach from a cave in northern Thailand earlier this month have been honoured for their bravery at a ceremony in Canberra.
Nine Order of Australia medals, seven bravery medals and two Stars of Courage were handed out during the ceremony on Tuesday, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describing the actions of the men as extraordinary.
Anaethetist Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris, from Adelaide, and his dive partner Dr Craig Challen, from Perth, were awarded the Star of Courage, which is given for acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril, in recognition of the part they played in the safe rescue of all 13 people from Tham Luang Cave.
The pair, who cave dive as a hobby, were described as the “linchpin of the operation” as they helped to devise the plan that saw the entire soccer team and their 25-year-old coach safely removed from the flooded cave, near Chiang Rai.
Awarded the Bravery Medal were Chief Petty Officer Troy Eather, Australian Federal Police’s Senior Constable Justin John Bateman, Leading Senior Constable Kelly Craig Boers, Detective Leading Senior Constable Benjamin Cox, First Constable Matthew Peter Fitzgerald, Acting Station Sergeant Robert Michael James and Detective Leading Senior Constable Christopher Markcrow.
Speaking at the ceremony, Prime Minister Turnbull paid tribute to the team’s extraordinary deeds. He said: “A big welcome home to our heroes from Thailand. During the World Cup the most inspiring story about football wasn’t from Russia, but from Thailand. You, the All Nations team that rescued the Wild Boars.
“Superbly professionally competent. We could not have better ambassadors showing the best of our Australian values than you. You formed an international human chain. You worked side by side with the Thai rescue team and crews from the United Kingdom, United States and China. If only leaders were as collaborative as you were.
“Yours was a mission of practical love, to save the lives of others. You inspired the whole world, and we salute you.”
Speaking after the ceremony, Harris said: “None of us really expected those boys to come out. Things were looking pretty grim for them.”
While Challen added: “I don’t think we could have done much differently. It was a pretty desperate situation, everyone was just trying to get a solution to the problem. It was unifying. We’re just two ordinary blokes who have got an unusual hobby. We were lucky to be there at the right time so we could offer those skills.”
The final child safely emerged from the cave on July 11 at around 6pm local time. In total, 19 divers assisted in the rescue of the final five members of the group, said to be the one of the toughest rescue operations to date. It is believed the youngest child, aged 11, was one of the last to be freed, although it was the boys’ 25-year-old coach who was the last to be rescued.
The team spent more than two weeks inside the cave after they became trapped on June 23 when flash floods made it impossible for them to exit the tunnel system, after they walked inside following a training session.