The Australian Federal Police was crucial to the dramatic rescue of the Thai cave boys in July. But one story, published by a local media outlet, left them fuming.
The Australian Federal Police was crucial to the dramatic rescue of the Thai cave boys in July. But one story, published by a local media outlet, left them fuming.

Aussie cave rescuers infuriated

When news broke that 12 young boys and their "Wild Boars" soccer coach were trapped in a Thai cave, the world stopped.

Volunteers descended on the site. Journalists booked the next flight to Chiang Rai. And most importantly, diving and rescue experts from across the globe went out to help save their lives.

It was truly a global effort - one that paid off with the successful rescue of all 13 trapped soccer team members.

But in a new book detailing the extraordinary three-week mission, Fairfax journalist James Massola revealed an article published by an Australian news outlet that infuriated our own rescue team.

WHY AFP STOPPED SEARCH MISSION EARLY

Australian officials played a significant role in the Thai boys' dramatic 18-day rescue.

Bravery medals were awarded to six members of the Australian Federal Police and one Navy chief petty officer for their contribution to the effort.

But in his new book, The Great Cave Rescue, James Massola revealed that AFP rescuers were privately fuming over how they were portrayed in the Australian media.

Specifically, it was an article published in the Australian Financial Review on how the AFP team stopped diving five hours before the boys were found.

Journalist Aaron Patrick pointed out that the six-person team had missed their chance to be "international heroes" because "they stopped work at 5pm on Monday, two days after they left Canberra".

A few hours later, it was a pair of amateur underwater rescuers from Wales who found the group alive.

The article, published on July 6, did not explain why the Australian team stopped searching when they did, but noted it didn't stop the federal agency from "eagerly promoting its involvement".

According to Massola, the article left the Australian dive team "fuming" because it "didn't fairly explain why the Australians had ceased their diving operations".

But just why did they stop searching at the 5pm mark?

"The AFP dive team specialises in search and rescue operations, the retrieval of bodies and evidence search," Massola explains.

"Its training focuses on open-water situations in low or even zero-visibility water and, much like most of the US contingent and the Thai Navy SEALs, the team simply didn't have the right kit for the type of cave-diving that Tham Luang required.

"Specialist cave divers use side-mounted slimline air tanks, which allow divers to slip through narrow openings. The AFP's much bulkier air tanks had to be worn on their backs, so it was impossible for them to go any further than chamber 3 - because of the pinch points that they would confront further into the chamber."

 

 

The AFR article, which described Australia's contribution to the rescue effort as merely "modest", epitomised a fractured relationship between the AFP and the Australian media dating back years. "Now, according to the AFP, Patrick's article appeared to confirm everything that was bad about the Australian media," writes Massola.

"The AFP's sensitivity over the article demonstrated just how tense things were as the days tricked by and everyone waited for the 'go' order.

"Weeks later, a member of the AFP's senior management team would veto their divers participating in any interviews with authors and journalists about the rescue."

 

Dr Richard Harris and Dr Craig Challen received the Star of Courage for their work in the rescue mission.
Dr Richard Harris and Dr Craig Challen received the Star of Courage for their work in the rescue mission.

 

Later in the mission, the crucial roles played by anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris and his dive partner Dr Craig Challen would send Australia's reputation soaring.

The pair were later presented with the Star of Courage - the second-highest Australian bravery decoration.

THAI AUTHORITIES 'CONTEMPTUOUS' OF ELON MUSK

Massola has also revealed how Thai officials really felt about Elon Musk's contribution to the rescue effort.

The colourful tech entrepreneur devised a miniature submarine that would be flown to Thailand to bring the boys to safety.

According to Massola, who suggested Musk was "just bored" and had "a singular talent for self-promotion, ego, financial might and engineering chops to think he might be able to help", his involvement divided Thai authorities.

Some seemed flattered that he had even noticed Thailand, and encouraged his solution with the hopes it would generate even more publicity.

But others were doubtful over whether he had anything of practical value to offer the rescue mission.

Thai rescue mission chief Narongsak Osatanakorn was dismissive of the tech billionaire's idea, saying: "Even though their equipment is technologically sophisticated, it doesn't fit with our mission to go in the cave."

Massola says Mr Narongsak was privately "contemptuous" of Musk's "impractical" machine, which wouldn't have been able to bend through at least two V-shaped points in the tunnel.

 

Elon Musk tweeted footage and stills of his miniature submarine invention.
Elon Musk tweeted footage and stills of his miniature submarine invention.

But if it's publicity Thai authorities were after, Musk certainly added to it. Several critics, such as US psychologist John Grohol, accused the entrepreneur of narcissism and using the rescue mission for his own self-aggrandisement.

In a tweet, Musk shot back: "If I am a narcissist (which might be true), at least I am a useful one."

As the rescue mission drew to a close, he tweeted that he would leave the submarine in the cave "in case it may be useful in the future".

But, as Massola notes, Musk became increasingly defensive of his role in the mission. He dismissed Mr Narongsak, releasing copies of emails in which British diver Richard Stanton encouraged him to continue his work on the capsule.

Musk later made headlines for suggesting British cave diver Vernon Unsworth was a paedophile and child rapist, after Unsworth dismissed his submarine as a PR stunt with "absolutely no chance of working".

Musk was subsequently sued for defamation, and later apologised.

WHERE ARE THE THAI CAVE BOYS NOW?

The boys have enjoyed a break from global media attention over the past couple of months.

When they left hospital after their rescue, 11 of the 12 boys were ordained as Buddhist novices. Coach Ek resumed the life of a monk for three months.

"The only thing we could do (to acknowledge Saman's sacrifice) was to enter the monkhood," he said. "Becoming a monk was to repay (the) kindness and sacrifice from everyone in this operation."

Later, before an audience of hundreds of people, the boys shared their experience in the cave, detailing how they survived and how scared they were.

They also shared their dreams for the future, with most saying they wanted to be professional footballers, Thai Navy SEALs, or both. Others expressed a desire to pursue higher education.

Some media outlets have since reported the saga will be turned into a Hollywood movie, but according to the ABC, the boys are yet to sign any lucrative deals.

The Thai government has repeatedly denied a movie deal has been secured, but a special committee has been established to negotiate any deals that may arise.

The families have each been offered $US11,500 ($AU15,859) for the option of making the movie, an additional $US115,000 ($AU158,572) when filming begins and box office bonuses if the film performs well.

Dr Harris and Dr Challen have verbally agreed to a movie-and-book deal each, valued at $US1 million ($AU1.37 million), according to Fairfax Media.



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