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Deep-sea Thai-ver Diver who saved 13 lives recalls incredible mission in new book as Farrell prepares for film role

People around the world were moved and inspired by the unprecedented rescue

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Colin Farrell is currently on set playing John Volanthen in Thirteen Lives

Colin Farrell is currently on set playing John Volanthen in Thirteen Lives

Colin Farrell is currently on set playing John Volanthen in Thirteen Lives

It was the smell of people that struck him first, that unmistakable smell of humanity that a diver recognises in the setting of a cave.

A fading torchlight in the distance confirmed to John Volanthen and his colleague that they had found the young Thai football team who had become trapped miles inside a badly-flooded cave ten days earlier.

But even then he dared not dream that any - let alone all - of the boys and their coach had survived. "We were expecting none of them to be alive when we found them," he says via Zoom. "The volume of water that we'd seen come out of the cave, the violence of the flooding, I couldn't contemplate anybody surviving. We always look for proof of life or proof of death. And I think if I'm honest, I absolutely prepared myself for finding that proof of death."

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Diver and author John Volanthen

Diver and author John Volanthen

Diver and author John Volanthen

 

The rescuers had even talked about the possibility of separating the living from the dead. "But when we started counting, we got to 13 and you hear Rick [Stanton] saying in the video: 'They're all alive'. It was unbelievable. I still to this day, cannot believe - they were unlucky to get trapped. But then afterwards, they were charmed."

Now Volanthen has written a book about the rescue and cave diving. Like the RNLI lifeboats, cave divers work on a voluntary basis. Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives will be published by Aurum on June 1.

People around the world were moved and inspired by the unprecedented rescue, which ended days later with all 13 being evacuated safely despite treacherous conditions.

One of them was our own Colin Farrell, who's set to play Volanthen in a new movie about the daring 2018 mission.

Directed by top filmmaker Ron Howard (Rush, Frost/Nixon) Farrell leads a big-name cast including Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton in Thirteen Lives, currently filming on location in Australia. Farrell and his colleagues are filming in massive tanks and sets that have been constructed to faithfully capture the conditions of the rescue.

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Inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

Inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

Inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

 

To the low-key Briton's bemusement, he has spent hours with Farrell on Zoom discussing the dramatic events of the rescue. He speaks with affection for the Irish actor.

"I've really enjoyed his company via Zoom and WhatsApp. I found Colin to be fantastic company. He's really conscientious, very funny, very caring.

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"It will be interesting to see how he takes on the role of John - I find it a lot easier to almost disassociate the role. He plays John and I guess I help him a little bit with that. I believe this is the first time he's actually played a role and then been introduced to that person, and I think that comes with its own challenges."

But he joked that the actor has not been impressed with the his wardrobe choices which have been recreated for the film. "I feel a little bit sorry for him - whenever I go on a cave diving trip, an expedition or a rescue, I tend to take all of my oldest clothes. So his costume and his wardrobe are my worst clothes!

"Because they're very practical, I wore Crocs in Thailand, because they wash off very easily. I think he was a little bit put out that he was given Crocs to wear," he laughed.

Farrell has noted some of Volanthen's turns of phrase when they've talked. "He's even taken up running because he sees that's something I do a lot of.

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Rescuers hold an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

Rescuers hold an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

Rescuers hold an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Thailand

 

"I've not actually heard or seen any of the filmed sequences yet. But the way I look at it, the worst is I'm going to look hunky and Irish, so I'm not going to come out too badly."

Volanthen is hopeful that his book will not only detail the dramatic rescue, but also give people a sense of what cave divers do and how what he's learned can be applied in other areas of life.

"I've tried to offer a toolbox of tools that can be used in all sorts of situations in life. These are tools that work for me. I'm not trying to tell people what to do, but certainly, I'm trying to offer a set of tools that I think are very much of value in terms of even finding yourself without confidence, how do you actually begin a difficult task if you're at an impasse."

  • Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives is available from June 1.

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