Standing knee deep in cave water and mud, Chief Petty Officer Troy Eather reflected on past deployments which had brought him to this point. Cave diving as a teenager on the NSW mid-north coast; IED Ops in Afghanistan; the recovery of the US Marine Corp Osprey off North Queensland; recovery Ops in East Timor - each experience had prepared him for what was turning out to be the biggest challenge he had faced so far in his Navy career.
CPO Eather was one of nine Australians who helped in the complex international rescue effort of 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach who were trapped for up to 18 days in a flooded cave system near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
Just days before CPO Eather had received the call from his Operations Officer. He was on a plane less than 24 hours later. “My focus was on the planning,” CPO Eather recalled. “What questions should I be prepared for regarding diving operations, risk mitigation, who were the key leaders I'd be dealing with? What would I need for spending a long time in water? There was a lot to think about.”
Back in the cave, things were heating up. “The humidity was extremely high,” CPO Eather recalled. “Rain was imminent and there was up to 5 inches of mud building up every day due to the amount of foot traffic.
“The cave entrance was larger than I expected - about 30 metres in diameter with water flowing similar to a shallow creek. However, once you entered the cave it became narrow - so narrow only one person could squeeze through. At one stage in the cave I was required to crawl through water flowing.”
CPO Eather's post was deep inside the complex - a 30 minute walk, more like a scramble. He shared his post with AFP members in a low rock chamber where water dripped from the ceiling. They hoped for the best, but quietly braced for the worst. Then word came down the line that the operation had begun.
“Once the first boy arrived the scene became alive,” CPO Eather recalled. “I was at the top of a small opening where each boy would need to pass through. They would be handed on by the AFP members and I would guide each stretcher through the narrow opening. Once it was assessed that each boy was in good enough condition to continue, they were guided further towards the cave entrance and eventually to safety.”
The Chief says he relied on both experience and training. “Working in confined, uncomfortable environments under pressure, knowing what was required and when to let the Thais take charge - this was more of an exercise in leadership and resilience than anything else.” CPO Eather said.
Today at Government House in Canberra, the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), in the presence of the Prime Minister and national leaders, recognised the nine Australians, including CPO Eather, involved in the Thailand cave rescue.
CPO Eather was honoured to be awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia and a Bravery Medal for his role in the rescue.
He is beginning to realise the world-wide attention the cave rescue had garnered.
“I felt good to see we had success, everyone was extremely happy.” he said. “My Navy mates want to know all about the technical aspects – I get a lot of ‘BZs’! My family and friends seem to think I'm some sort of celebrity! But honestly, I think I just did a job that any other person would have done if faced with similar circumstances.”