Interview: Chris Jewell, the Somerset cave diver involved in the Thailand rescue mission
PUBLISHED: 11:43 05 February 2019 | UPDATED: 11:43 05 February 2019
The daring rescue of 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand gripped the world. Chrissy Harris meets the Somerset cave diver who took part in the incredible mission
Chris Jewell is a 36-year-old computer software consultant from Cheddar.
Back in June, however, he left normal life behind to become part of one of the most challenging rescue operations the world has ever known.
Chris was one of a team of British cave divers who risked their lives to save a group of young boys and their football coach after they became stranded for 18 days, deep underground in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.
The members of the Wild Boars youth football team faced certain death during what looked like an unfolding tragedy.
But then, against all the odds, came the images of the boys being brought out of the flooded cave network one by one, thanks to the heroic efforts of Chris and a crack team of highly skilled divers.
The rescuers arrived back in the UK to a whirlwind of media interest, appearing on news programmes and chat shows across the country to talk about their role in a story that had us all completely captivated.
Today, sat on the sofa at home in Cheddar, Chris tells Somerset Life that he was initially quite baffled by the attention.
“I didn’t quite get how much it had affected other people,” he says. “It was only when I was speaking to colleagues, friends and family that I realised how much it had affected them emotionally, the whole rescue.”
In 2013, he was part of a group that spent seven weeks navigating the Huautla cave system in Mexico, one of the most remote places ever reached inside the earth.
When he was asked to help in the Thai rescue, Chris was only too willing to offer his skills.
“If I could be of use, I wanted to go,” he says, describing the build-up before the call came through. “I had to get all my kit and get myself on a flight that night. Usually it takes days, if not weeks to pull stuff together for any kind of cave diving holiday or expedition. We had a few hours.”
Did he panic? “It wasn’t panic, it was more a sense of urgency,” he says, thoughtfully. “Whenever you’ve got a flight to catch, that’s a pretty tight deadline.”
Catching a plane on time was nothing compared to the pressure he must have faced when he arrived at the entrance to the 10km (six mile) Tham Luang cave complex. With the world’s media looking on, Chris prepared to go in, not knowing if he or the stricken boys and their coach would ever come out. The operation had already claimed the life of Thai navy diver Saman Kunan, who died while replenishing oxygen canisters.
“We did feel a sense of responsibility,” says Chris. “But the only reason we were able to do what we did was because we were detached from the whole operation. If you make a big deal out of the responsibility, you’re going to freeze.”
This calm, absolutely calculated approach became vital when Chris dived down to bring out the second-to-last of the 12 stranded boys.
“I misplaced or let go of the line which was under tension and it pinged out of reach,” he says, explaining that he lost his only guide to safety for a few seconds before he picked up an electrical cable and followed that instead.
“It’s a reasonably serious incident but then if you panic, it’s just going to make it worse,” says Chris. “The training kicked in. I guess I had a reasonably elevated heart rate, which is to be expected,” he adds, smiling.
Chris admits he’s not really one to show emotion but talks about the enormous sense of relief he and all the divers felt after the boys had been rescued. “That was incredible,” he says. “It’s not a total success until you’ve got the last of them out.”
And then it was back home to Somerset, where reporters had already been ringing his doorbell. It seemed everyone wanted to talk about what had happened.
“I remember the day I got home, I really needed a haircut,” says Chris. “I went down to the barber’s, sat down and he said: ‘So, what have you been up to?’ I said I’d been away. He said: ‘Anywhere nice?’ So I told him I’d been to Thailand and he said: ‘Oh, good.’ He had no idea and that was quite nice.”
Chris is a reluctant hero but says he’s happy to chat about the rescue and has already been invited to speak at several local and national events.
He’s just been given the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) first ever medal of valour, as well as a bravery award from the chairman of Somerset County Council. Chris attended an event at Buckingham Palace held to honour the British cave diving team’s astonishing efforts and he was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in the New Year Honours.
“I think Thailand’s given us all a bit of a boost,” says Chris. “For some reason, it’s rejuvenated our cave diving. We’ve started to plan more trips and talk about more projects. It’s kind of refocused us.”
Find out more at caverescue.org.uk.
The fellow diver...
Cave diver Connor Roe from Axbridge, pictured far left at the Pride of Britain Awards, also took part in the Thai rescue.
The British Army soldier started cave diving in 2012 and in 2013 he joined the expedition organised by Chris Jewell to the Huautla cave system in Mexico.
He was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours.