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The Miraculous True Story Behind ‘Thirteen Lives’

Cave diver Rick Stanton—played by Viggo Mortenson in Ron Howard’s new film—shares details of the dramatic rescue in a Thai cave.

The cast of Thirteen Lives on set in true inspiring story of Thai cave rescue

On Saturday, June 23, 2018, in northern Thailand, members of the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach went to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non Cave. It would be nearly three weeks before they emerged again. Now, the true story of the team’s miraculous rescue, and the inspirational story of the people behind it, is coming to the big screen in Ron Howard’s newest film, Thirteen Lives.

Early monsoon flooding trapped the boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, Ekkapol Ake Chanthawong, over 1.5 miles inside the caves. As people around the world watched coverage of the search, many doubted the team was alive. The Tham Luang cave network went deep into the mountain through a labyrinth of narrow passageways and small caves, many of them completely underwater due to the monsoons.

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Rescue divers from around the world were called in to assist with the search, including British diver Richard “Rick” Stanton. As a former firefighter, search and rescue was a big part of his life. His love of cave diving started early.

Rick Stanton and Viggo Mortensen at premiere for Thirteen Lives true story of thai cave rescue
Rick Stanton and Viggo Mortensen (photo by Stewart Cook)    

“I was 18 years old and studying for my exams, when I saw a documentary about cave diving in England,” Rick told Guideposts. “Growing up, I watched Jacques Cousteau. I liked the water and diving. [The concept of cave diving] gave a direction to diving. It was a means to explore somewhere where no one had ever been before. That was an amazing new concept to me, and I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Rick, along with 12 other experienced cave divers, joined the Thai Navy SEALS in their search. Rick said he had worked closely—in some of the world’s most remote caves—with many of the other divers. “It’s not just the friendship, but the bonds you create doing something that can be dangerous,” he said.

Ten days into the search, Rick and British diver John Volanthen , discovered the boys and their coach inside the cave. They were all alive, but desperately in need of food, water, and air. As supplies went in, rescuers now faced the even more daunting task of getting the boys out. “We acted confidently in front of them,” Rick said. “John is a scout leader so he kept them motivated and assured them more people would come.”

They decided to heavily sedate the boys during the rescue, under the guidance of Australian diver Dr. Richard Harris, an anesthetist. While Rick did not feel very hopeful about the idea, he had an impressive level of pragmatic optimism about it. “The plan we presented had never been done before,” he said. “But I like to operate in the [thought] process of, ‘I couldn’t see a reason why it wouldn’t work.’ The reason we continued is because we knew it was the only option they had.”

The boys’ families stayed near the cave and prayed fervently throughout the rescue. Even if Rick’s hope faltered, his actions, and the actions of all the other volunteers and rescuers, kept the parents hopeful through it all.

Tanawat Viboonrungruang, the father of the youngest boy trapped in the cave, 11-year-old Chanin, told CNN, “Just think that all of these people are trying really hard to help us. We have to stay strong… They didn’t let fear take over. They stay hopeful because we are in it together from the first day to the last day.”

In total, over 5,000 people from seven different countries were a part of the cave rescue. Rick states that the entire process was truly a community effort. “Everything, from the [food] caterers, to the laundry people, to the people diverting water, the masses of military people, police, and specialist divers…” he said. “It was a huge amount of people all doing whatever they can.”

This is the story that director Ron Howard seeks to tell in his new film. Howard, who directed films like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, is no stranger to telling true inspirational stories. “I wanted to be as journalistic as I could possibly be,” Howard says in a trailer for the film. “And one of the things I wanted to convey was: Thai people saved these boys.”

In the end, all 12 boys and their coach came out alive and reunited with their families. However, the mission was not without casualties. Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL and experienced diver who volunteered to help in the rescue, died while trying to deliver oxygen to the boys. In 2019, Thai Navy SEAL Bayroot Pakbara died from a blood infection he contracted during the rescue.

Because of this loss, as well as the spirit and resilience of the Thai people during the rescue, director Ron Howard felt it was important to focus on how their tireless efforts were the heart of the story.

“The Thai people really accomplished a miracle,” Howard said, “and this movie is a really powerful case study in the anatomy of that miracle.”

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For Rick, this impossible miracle happened one step at a time. “It’s all about those incremental steps,” he said. “If you take all the steps over a long period, then you can go a long way.”

Thirteen Lives stars Viggo Mortensen as Rick Stanton, Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Joel Edgerton as Dr. Richard Harris, Weir Sukollawat Kanarot as Saman Kunan, and Thira “Aum” Chutikul as Thai Navy SEAL Capt. Arnont Sureewong. You can watch the true inspirational story on Prime Video starting August 5.

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