Hero cave diver on Colin Farrell playing him in movie and how he saved Thai children

HE is the fearless cave diver who put his life on the line to save a dozen Thai children and their football coach trapped deep underground for 17 days.

But modest John Volanthen was disappointed to learn Colin Farrell will play him in director Ron Howard’s new movie about the rescue.

The Bristol-based IT consultant and divorced dad of one reckons Rowan Atkinson — as bumbling Mr Bean — is more suited to his nerdy look.

And he had never heard of the Irish A-lister Colin.

In an exclusive interview, John reveals just how close the Thai lads were to not making it out alive.

He also opens up about his lengthy Zoom calls with heart-throb Colin, 44, a father of two.

John, 49, told The Sun: “Ron Howard told me Colin Farrell was playing me last autumn while we were chatting over Zoom. I’m not a great movie buff, so I had no idea who he was.

“I originally asked, partly in jest, for Rowan Atkinson. He wears glasses and he’s a laugh — I was thinking Mr Bean — it seemed like a good fit. But Ron made it very clear he wasn’t making that type of movie.

“I’m not a hunky Irishman but Colin is fantastic and the more I’ve got to know him, the more I’ve come to respect him.

“His attention to detail is amazing. We’ve spoken for hours over Zoom and though we’ve had very different life paths, we share some common views on life not going as you expect.

“We both have exes, we both have children from those relationships and we seem to have ­similar philosophies on how to make those things work.”

Twelve boys from the Wild Boars junior football team got stuck in the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand on June 23, 2018.

It is still not clear why the boys, then aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach Ekkaphon Chanthawong went into the cave after football practice.

When heavy rains swept in, flooding the exits, their chances of survival seemed bleak.

British cave diver Vern Unsworth, who lived locally, convinced the Thai authorities to ask the British Cave Rescue Council for help.

John, a world-class cave diver, and his colleague Richard Stanton, now 60, were asked to catch the next flight out.

At the time, John was in an IT sales meeting in his home town.

He said: “I thought it was brave for the Thais to ask for outside help so early. If they had delayed, the boys might not have made it.

“We had to establish ourselves from zero when we got to the cave.

"The Ministry of Tourism had asked for our help but the Thai military were in charge and there were all sorts of groups with all sorts of agendas. Just getting permission to go in was tough.”

It was hoped the boys had found an air pocket in a section dubbed Pattaya Beach, around two miles from the cave entrance.

But when John and Rick entered the pitch-black chamber on July 2, more than a week after the boys went missing, the group was nowhere to be seen.

They were in fact another 1,300ft in. John said: “The difficulty of the rescue was unprecedented. The volume of water coming through the cave was huge

"It was an underground raging river in the first few days. I expected to swim into a chamber and start bumping into bodies

“We definitely bent the rules on the dive in finding the children. We didn’t have enough air left to get back independently if something went wrong.

"When we reached the chamber the boys were sheltering in, they were beginning to use up the oxygen and the carbon dioxide level was rising

“The smell was rank, so I assumed we had found corpses. But it was just excrement.

“I couldn’t believe they were all alive. The coach had found one of the few places in the cave where 13 people could survive. That was an amazing piece of skill — or luck.

“I kept saying, ‘Believe,’ as I counted their faces. People assumed I was trying to assure the boys but I was trying to convince myself this was actually happening.”

More than 100 divers and 2,000 soldiers aided the rescue and more than a billion litres of water — the equivalent of 400 Olympic swimming pools — were pumped out of the cave.

Tragically, Thai Navy Seal Saman Kunan, 37, who John chatted to during the effort, died on July 6 when he ran out of air on his way back from delivering oxygen to the boys.

After much debate, it was decided the children would be sedated then guided to the surface through a series of flooded tunnels, some only two feet wide.

Tesla founder Elon Musk wanted to supply a mini submarine to help

When Unsworth rejected his offer, the tech billionaire falsely called him a “pedo guy” on Twitter, sparking a legal battle.

The rescue attempt began on July 9 and required nerves of steel

It took John’s team two days, with the final four boys rescued 17 days after they entered the cave

John said: “The boys were in a wetsuit and a harness with a handle on the back. The smaller boys were easier, the larger boys and coach much more difficult.

“We tied their hands behind their back so they couldn’t pull the masks off and tied their feet together. I had to be really careful their masks did not dislodge because they would have drowned.

“There was no second chance. The visibility was so bad I could only tell if a boy was alive when I felt the bubbles from his regulator. If they began to stir, we would re-sedate them.

“That wasn’t my favourite part of it because I have a phobia of needles.”

Of cave diving, John added: “What motivates me is finding new caves that have never seen light before, let alone a footprint

"Each cave presents a unique difficulty and I take satisfaction from coming up with the solution, then betting your life on it.”

John received a George Medal from the British government for his bravery.


He has now written a book, Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives, and filming on the movie has begun in Australia, with Viggo Mortensen as Stanton.

John said: “I can’t express enough my determination for those boys I brought out to survive. The most important part was being able to meet their parents and not having to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’.

“I’ve done this many times and the most difficult thing is saying those words.”

  •  Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives, by John Volanthen (Aurum) will be out on June 1.

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