THE Australian diver whose vital role in the Thai cave rescue undoubtedly saved many of the boys' lives has spoken for the first time since the mission's success declaring he's no hero.

Despite his modesty, a senior Police commander in Thailand has said Adelaide anaesthetist and underwater cave explorer Richard Harris' role was "quintessential" to rescuing the Wild Boars. He was said to be the last person to leave the Tham Luang caves.

Speaking on Wednesday via Skype to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Dr Harris - known as Harry - said the real praise should be reserved for the Thai soldiers and boys themselves.

"The big heroes in this are the children and the Thai Navy SEALs who were looking after them," Dr Harris said.

"They are the toughest blokes and kids I have ever had the privilege to meet and without them being in the state they were in, we couldn't have done anything; that's where the credit lies."

Mr Turnbull asked Dr Harris to describe the trickiest section of the huge cave system he needed to navigate.

11/07/2018: Australian DFAT staff celebrate with Doctor Richard Harris (in light blue) and his dive buddy Craig Challen (next to him on the left) after they contributed the successful rescue of 12 soccer players and their coach from a cave in Thailand.Source:Supplied
11/07/2018: Australian DFAT staff celebrate with Doctor Richard Harris (in light blue) and his dive buddy Craig Challen (next to him on the left) after they contributed the successful rescue of 12 soccer players and their coach from a cave in Thailand.Source:Supplied

"The last couple of hundred metres underwater is very difficult to find your way through. For the entire dive at the back of the cave there's zero visibility (due to) mud and clay," he replied.

"So you're following the (guide) line with your hand and you basically might as well have your eyes closed with a small boy being cradled in your arms and feeling your way through rocks and posting yourself sideways through little holes."

The PM concluded the call by thanking Dr Harris and the other Australians on the ground in Thailand which included police officers and Defence personnel.

"You're an inspiration to Australia, you did Australia proud," he said.

Mr Turnbull also acknowledged the desperately sad news Dr Harris had to face just hours after the team were rescued - the death of his father overnight.

As tears of relief and joy flowed at the conclusion of the rescue that enthralled the world, hero Australian doctor Richard Harris soon learned the tragic news of his father's death.

MedSTAR Director of Clinical Services Dr Andrew Pearce on Wednesday confirmed Dr Harris, known as Harry, had endured a "tumultuous week with highs and lows".

"It is with great sadness that I confirm that Harry's dad passed away last night a short time after the successful rescue operation in Thailand," he said.

"I have spoken with Harry. This is clearly a time of grief for the Harris family, magnified by the physical and emotional demands of being part of this week's highly complex and ultimately successful rescue operation.

Dr Pearce said the SA Ambulance Service was incredibly proud of Dr Harris.

Dr Harris and his dive partner Craig Challen.
Dr Harris and his dive partner Craig Challen.

"We are delighted that Harry and the boys are safe and that he was able to play such a remarkable role in the Australian response," Dr Pearce said.

"Harry is a quiet and kind man who did not think twice about offering his support on this mission.

"He will be coming home soon and taking some well-earned time off to be with his family. He has asked that the family's privacy is respected at this time."

The 53-year-old South Australian anaesthetist, an experienced cave diver, swam into the cave with a Thai medical team to triage the boys, determining which were fit enough to make the 1.7km swim to the surface and who would go first.

Why Aussie doctor was last to leave cave
 

Adelaide anaesthetist and underwater cave explorer Richard Harris is understood have been the last person to leave the cave overnight, having played a crucial role in the complex mission to save the young boys and their coach.

There are calls for Richard Harris to be awarded for his efforts. Picture: Supplied
There are calls for Richard Harris to be awarded for his efforts. Picture: Supplied

The 53-year-old gave up a family holiday and made his way to Northern Thailand, where he scuba dived 4km through cold, dark and narrow passages to reach the boys and assessed them as medically fit to attempt the risky escape mission.

He was one of the 19 divers who helped escort the final five members of the group out of Tham Luang cave, in the toughest rescue operation of the past few days.

Using his 30 years of experience, the South Australian assessed which of them should be saved first and checked up on their physical conditions as they were escorted through the cave's perilous network to safety.

As each of the boys swam out one-by-one, he was there to give them a medical sign-off and he only left once everybody was out safely.

Dr Richard Harris was one of the last to leave the cave overnight. Picture: Facebook
Dr Richard Harris was one of the last to leave the cave overnight. Picture: Facebook

Now there are calls from hundreds of Australians on social media for the expert medic and cave diver to be handed the Australian of the Year award for his heroics in the incredible rescue mission.

"If ever a bloke deserved to be Australian of the Year it's this man," wrote one commenter on Twitter. "He's what embodies the true spirit of this country."

"Words can't even describe how proud this guy makes me feel to be Australian," wrote another. "In a world where we sometimes honour people for the most meaningless reasons, surely it's time we recognised a real-life hero like Richard Harris."

British divers specifically requested the talented medic for the rescue operation which claimed a life of one of the cave divers taking part.

However, it is not the first time Dr Harris has found himself at the centre of a tragic rescue operation.

The well-known diver was also summoned for an extremely difficult and life-threatening cave diving mission in 2011, when he was tasked with recovering the body of his mate Agnes Milowka.

She ran out of air during an expedition at Tank Cave near Mount Gambier in South Australia, but Dr Harris had to find the strength to pull his mask on and recover her lifeless body from the dangerous cave.

South Australian police specifically requested Dr Harris because of the complexities of the almost 8km stretch of winding underwater passages inside the perilous cave network.

She is understood to have become disoriented during the tragic 2011 mission in South Australia and ran out of air while trying to work out how to navigate a difficult section of the cave.

Dr Harris had to recover his mate Agnes Milowka’s body. Picture: Supplied
Dr Harris had to recover his mate Agnes Milowka’s body. Picture: Supplied

The heartbreaking mission is just one of many over Dr Harris' illustrious career, which have propelled him to become one of the most sought-after professionals in the field.

He's been described as "essential" to the rescue bid to save the trapped Thai schoolboys because of his unique skills and experience.

"He's an interesting character," MedSTAR clinical director Andrew Pearce told reporters on Monday as the rescue efforts in Thailand continued.

"Harry is selfless. He is extremely thoughtful. He's a quiet person. He is the type of guy who will give of his all.

"He was actually meant to be on holiday and gave up his holiday so that he could be part of this."

Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn also praised Dr Harris' efforts overnight.

"(The Australians) have been a big help, especially the doctor," Mr Osotanakorn told9 News. "Very good. The best - not good - the very best."


Interlock drink driving laws expanded

Interlock drink driving laws expanded

The laws were expanded earlier this month.

80,000 lights: The true spirit of Christmas lives in Ballina

80,000 lights: The true spirit of Christmas lives in Ballina

It's a bittersweet year for Ballina's most popular Santa

Scary number of drivers falling asleep while driving

Scary number of drivers falling asleep while driving

Staggering number of NSW drivers have nodded off behind the wheel.

Local Partners