Jonathan Volanthen is greeted at Heathrow yesterday by a Thai woman bearing chocolates.

Jonathan Volanthen is greeted at Heathrow yesterday by a Thai woman bearing chocolates.

He spoke of the “relief” he felt at seeing the boys, members of a football team called the Wild Boars, rescued after their 18-day ordeal in Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non caves.

Describing the moment he located the children deep underground, he said: “We were very pleased and very relieved that they were all alive.

“But I think at that point we realised the enormity of the situation and that’s perhaps why it took a while to get them all out.”

Mr Volanthen, a 47-year-old IT consultant based in Bristol, and fellow Briton Rick Stanton, a fireman from Coventry who is in his 50s, were the first divers to reach the group nine days after they went missing in the cave complex in Chiang Rai province.

The last four boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought to safety on Tuesday.

The rescue operation was particularly treacherous because the youngsters, aged 11 to 16, had to swim through tight spaces despite having no previous diving experience.

Another diver, Jason Mallinson, 50, from Huddersfield, said the team left messages for the children as they flew back to the UK saying: “We’re very glad we could get you out alive. Be careful in the future.”

At Heathrow, Mr Volanthen was hugged and presented with chocolates by an unknown Thai woman. All the divers rejected suggestions they should be knighted. 

Mr Volanthen said: “It’s not like that. If you could do the same for someone else’s child, you would.

“The result is the important thing. The kids came out, the coach is good – job done.”

Mr Volanthen also paid tribute to Thai navy rescue diver Saman Kunan, who died in the cave while replenishing oxygen canisters, saying his death brought a “bittersweet” taste to an otherwise “excellent” operation.

Mr Volanthen’s mother, Jill, said: “We are absolutely so proud, but my sympathy is with the wife and family of the diver who lost his life.”

She added: “I’d like to thank everybody for all their teamwork to get the lads out, it is absolutely lovely.”

Health officials said the rescued boys would now spend at least a week in hospital and about 30 days recovering at home after their ordeal.

The lads have been filmed recuperating in an isolation ward, chatting while their parents wave to them through a glass window. Meanwhile, the Tham Luang cave complex will remain closed to the public for at least six months.

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