Two amateur divers received Australia’s one of the most prestigious awards on Friday after they volunteered in what they thought was a hopeless mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand.
Anesthetist Richard Harris and his friend Craig Challen, a retired veterinarian, were given Australian of the Year Award 2019 in a ceremony at the national capital Canberra on the eve of Australia’s national day.
“A lot’s been said about this little adventure that we’ve had, but the bottom line for me is that there are 13 families that have still got their sons they wouldn’t have if we hadn’t been there as part of that group,” Challen said. “That’s what floats my boat.”
The two heroes said they didn’t believe all the 13 team members would emerge alive after being trapped in the cave for two weeks.
“It was the best-worst plan that we had. I had no confidence at all that it was going to work and that the children could survive,” Harris said.
The soccer team members thanked the men in a video message, saying: “We love you. All the best.”
The video brought the men to tears, who said it was the first time they communicated with the boys since the rescue.
The rescue operation of the boys captured international attention after they entered the cave on June 23 for a short exploration, but a flood soon blocked the exit, forcing them to retreat deeper inside the cave.
Harris and Challen joined the rescue operation on July 6 and reached the boys the next day.
Harris sedated the team and began the extraction from the cave. His medical expertise was the key in getting the boys out as he examined the health of everyone trapped inside the cave and remained there the last boy was rescued.
Challen, meanwhile, played a leading role in the operation due to his technical expertise. He worked long 10-12 hours every day to swim the children one-by-one through pitch-dark and flooded passageways.
This isn’t the first time the pair received awards for their bravery. Weeks after the rescue, they were awarded the Star of Courage, which is the second-highest civilian bravery decoration in the Australian honors system.
Harris said he will use his title to inspire children to build their character by testing their limits outdoors.
“I do fear for kids today who living in a risk-averse society will not learn to challenge themselves and to earn the grazed knees and stubbed toes that really are necessary to build resilience and confidence,” he said.
“You might think it’s strange that having just rescued some kids from a cave, that I would like to promote kids to come under ground,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.