Monday, 20 August 2018
Thailand: Cave Rescue
That this House:
(1) notes with great relief that the young boys trapped in the caves in Thailand have all been rescued;
(2) congratulates the:
(a) Thai authorities on managing a successful rescue mission; and
(b) international effort to support the Thai authorities and bring the boys out;
(3) especially recognises the Australian support to the rescue mission;
(5) further recognises the awarding of the Medal of the Order of Australia and the Bravery Medal to Troy Either, Robert James, Kelly Boers, Benjamin Cox, Matthew Fitzgerald, Justin Bateman and Chris Markcrow for their brave actions during the rescue;
(6) notes with sadness the tragic death of the Royal Thai Navy SEAL veteran during the rescue mission; and
(7) warmly congratulates all involved in the rescue mission and gives thanks for their courage and heroism.
Imagine for a moment you're in a pitch black space, cold water rushing all around you, and you're scrambling desperately to find some dry ground, but the water level just keeps rising. You're dressed in nothing but a light soccer uniform. You're cold, wet, hungry and scared. You're huddled together with your mates, hoping and praying that you'll see your families again and get to kick a soccer ball on the field again. You pray that you'll get out of the cave alive and see the light of day.
That is exactly what 12 young men of the Wild Boars soccer team and their young coach encountered when they found themselves deep in the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand after what was supposed to be an after-training excursion on 23 June. The excursion led them deep into the complex, kilometres-long cave system. Deep underground they became trapped when the caves were flooded with monsoonal rains. A massive search and rescue operation was quickly launched. It required divers experienced in the dangerous pursuit of cave diving. That's being underwater in scuba gear in openings as small as 40 centimetres—certainly not a job for the faint-hearted or a novice diver.
The government of Thailand put out a call for assistance to help their over 1,000 personnel, including Royal Thai Navy SEALs. Specialists from Australia, Britain, Japan, China, Myanmar and Laos and the US were involved. The Australian government provided the AFP's Specialist Response Group together with support from the ADF and DFAT. They played a key role in the rescue of the 12 boys and their coach. The AFP Specialist Response Group was supported by a contingent including the clearance diver from the Royal Australian Navy, who was part of the diving team working to free the boys and their coach. This group was supported by air crew, logistics, professionals and diplomatic staff here in Australia and on the ground in Thailand—skilled professionals who all contributed their expertise to help get these young boys out of the caves safe and well. The professionals exhibited the very best of the Australian spirit of helping out a mate. The rescuers were working in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions, flooded chambers with visibility limited to seeing the next rock only when you hit it.
The tragic death of a former Royal Thai Navy SEAL, from a lack of oxygen, brought home to all of us how dangerous the rescue mission was. I think it was at this point that so many of us feared the boys may not come out alive. The British divers found the boys and a rescue mission was hatched. It was hazardous—with poor visibility, debris and constricted passageways, and further rainfall predicted. We saw the boys in the headlamps of the divers. They had big smiles. They were very cold but they were alive and smiling. With the help of two Australian doctors—Richard 'Harry' Harris and Craig Challen—a plan was conceived, trained personnel and local children rehearsed above the ground, and evacuation procedures were drilled to perfection. Drs Harris and Challen dived in to the boys several times, making sure of their wellbeing and assessing them for extraction. We know the details and we know what great care was taken. Dr Harris and Dr Challen were in the cave for the entire rescue mission. I want to acknowledge their conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril. These are the words set out on the Star of Courage, which both Dr Harris and Dr Challen were awarded.
Another part of the Australian contribution was chief petty officer and clearance diver Troy Eather who joined the rescue efforts. There were so many involved who were noted for their bravery. Senior Constable Justin Bateman, Leading Senior Constable Kelly Boers, Detective Leading Senior Constable Benjamin Cox, First Constable Matthew Fitzgerald, Acting Station Sergeant Robert James, Detective Leading Senior Constable Christopher Markcrow and Chief Petty Officer and Clearance Diver Troy Eather were all awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia as well as the Group Bravery Citation.
When we look at what happened here, we were all desperately worried. But we were very proud of the efforts of everyone involved—in particular, Dr Harris and Dr Challen, who were awarded the Star of Courage. The Group Bravery Citation, which I mentioned earlier, is awarded for a collective act of bravery by a group of people in extraordinary circumstances. In addition to the Medal of the Order of Australia, Dr Harris and Dr Challen were also awarded the Star of Courage, our second-highest bravery decoration, in recognition of the crucial part they played in the whole rescue operation. In this House, we salute the brave Australians and everybody involved in the rescue of these young men and their coach.
Disaster brings out the best in humanity. Whether it is a natural disaster like the fires, floods, earthquakes and droughts that we are seeing around the world right now, a major catastrophe such as the Genoa bridge collapse in Italy, or even an act of terrorism where innocent people lose their lives or are badly hurt, disaster often sees the best in people who come together to help those in need at a critical time. It is even more noticeable, however, when lives are still hanging by a thread and it becomes a race against time. Most of us can still recall the Beaconsfield mine collapse in Tasmania in 2006. Seventeen miners were trapped. One of them, sadly, was killed and two of them stayed waiting underground for nearly two weeks in the hope that they would be rescued.
More recently, we have the case of the 12 young boys who were trapped in the caves in Thailand. They were aged between 11 and 16 and they were with their 25-year-old coach. There was not a lot of experience among them and they were caught up in some terrible circumstances—undoubtedly with fear and desperation in their hearts as they waited to see whether they could be rescued. These are human emotions that we can all relate to and which become more profound when it is about the lives of children. It is this universal commonality of human emotion that overrides race, culture, colour or religion. So it was with the misadventure of the 12 boys and their coach. For most of us, they were total strangers whom we don't know and will probably never meet. But that didn't diminish our deeply-felt hope that they would be saved.
Hope alone is not enough. Their survival depended on a rescue operation where others had both the expertise and courage to launch a very difficult and risky rescue operation. It is no exaggeration to say that the risks were real, with one experienced diver, a Royal Thai Navy SEAL veteran, losing his own life. And we shouldn't forget him either.
It was a rescue operation that drew on the expertise and experience of people from around the world, as the member for Forrest has just pointed out, including people from Australia. A team of some 20 Australians, led by Dr Richard Harris and veterinarian Craig Challen, were crucial to the mission's success. If anyone needs any proof of Australian cultural diversity and acceptance at its best, then look to the Thai caves rescue mission. The Australians who participated in the rescue of those 12 boys and their coach made every Australian so proud. Dr Richard Harris, Craig Challen, Troy Eather, Robert James, Kelly Boers, Benjamin Cox, Matthew Fitzgerald, Justin Bateman and Chris Markcrow were all awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, in recognition of their representation of this country and in recognition of what they did. Most of them were also given the Bravery Medal, with Richard Harris and Craig Challen also being given the Star of Courage medal. None of these people went to Thailand to seek glory. They went there because they knew that there was a desperate situation. But the public recognition offered to them by way of the medals that they were granted showed the gratitude of a nation, and rightly so. Indeed, I had several constituents contact me after the rescue asking for that to be done.
I was in Adelaide and was privileged to attend a reception at Government House, hosted by His Excellency the Hon. Hieu Van Le, in recognition of the leadership role of Dr Richard Harris. Dr Harris humbly accepted the praise and accolades afforded to him. But it became very evident that, for him, there had been a crisis situation in hand, he had some much-needed experience and expertise, and lives were at stake—that was all that mattered. There was a job to be done. And the Australians stood tall in the face of that adversity, when the global spotlight was on them, and their recognition did all of us proud. The recognition given to them is indeed well deserved. And I know that Dr Richard Harris came back to Adelaide and just went back into his normal life as a doctor, doing what he does best—saving lives.
I commend the member for Makin on those comments. I also rise today to support the member for Forrest, whose motion I wholeheartedly concur with. It is at times of great adversity that we're reminded of the true selflessness and compassion of the human race, and that was the case in July. Reports of the 12 young soccer players and their coach trapped in the flooded cave in Thailand saw the world transfixed and mesmerised by the life-and-death crisis and the unfolding miracle. The incredible story brought to the world's attention some amazing Australians who took part in the rescue. In particular, I want to acknowledge a South Australian with a rare combination of talents.
Dr Richard Harris, an anaesthetist from Adelaide with more than 30 years of cave-diving experience, was specifically requested to be part of the operation by British divers participating in the Thai rescue. With his diving partner, Western Australian Craig Challen, Dr Harris's unique set of skills set him to lead a team of eight Australians involved in the gruelling rescue in Chiang Rai Province, along with six members of the Australian Federal Police. They cooperated with experts from around the world—from Britain, Japan, China, Myanmar and Laos—and more than 30 US military personnel, who joined about a thousand Thai rescuers in the massive search and rescue operation. The combination of his medical knowledge and skills in cave diving—a perilous hobby in the best of circumstances—equipped Dr Harris for this dangerous and complex rescue operation. He risked his life to make the treacherous journey to the chamber where the boys were trapped underground for 15 days, and spent three days with them, assessing and monitoring their medical condition, before the rescue commenced.
Can you imagine the fear and trauma these boys had experienced: days and nights of pitch black, hungry and cold, huddled together and wondering if they would ever be found and be reunited with their families? Handprints found at the cave where the boys climbed deeper to escape the rising waters were amongst the first signs rescuers found showing where they were, how they had escaped the floods and the dangers the rescuers would face in the mission to save them. When the group was found by British divers, the world sighed in collective relief to hear all were alive and remarkably well, but now to get them out. The young boys were weakened and malnourished, with no scuba experience, so the expectations of success were not high. It was on the advice of Dr Harris that the first four boys were cleared to make the incredibly dangerous journey out of the flooded cave complex. It required his medical expertise to sedate the boys combined with his diving knowledge to help put in place the daring rescue plan. In the final day of the 18-day ordeal, the last person to emerge from the labyrinth of tunnels was Dr Harris, a true example of a great Australian, who sadly emerged to the devastating news that his father had passed away.
Here in Australia, we like to celebrate our heroes—there's nothing wrong with that and so we should—but I sometimes wonder whether others view our citizens in the same way. I can assure this parliament that, in this case, it is the reverse. Richard 'Harry' Harris is a rock star in Thailand. I was in Thailand recently and heard firsthand from the President of the Thai Senate how revered Dr Harris is in that incredibly grateful country. I applaud the role of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre. The centre is a key element of the Australian government's disaster and emergency medical response to incidents of national and international significance. The centre trains first responders and supports experts for global emergencies. Dr Harris had completed an Australian medical assistance team course and was on the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre database with up-to-date training. It was from these credentials the decision was made that Dr Harris was the man for the job.
While we saw how fast and effectively international cooperation can solve problems and save lives, we also remember the courage and selflessness of former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan, who died while volunteering in the rescue. Dr Harris and Dr Challen have been awarded the Star of Courage, the second-highest civilian bravery decoration in the Australian honours system. Six police and a Navy diver received the Bravery Medal. It is a time to be proud of our Australian heroes, but it's even more important that we celebrate our ability to work together in the common good.