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'If those were my boys, what would I do?', S'porean rescue diver's first thoughts at Thai cave

SINGAPORE — Singaporean diver Douglas Dylan Yeo, who is turning 50, was on Tuesday (July 10) involved in the rescue operations for the group of boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand.

50-year old rescue diver Douglas Yeo with his son Dominique, on 13 July 2018. Mr Yeo was part of the Thai cave rescue operation.

50-year old rescue diver Douglas Yeo with his son Dominique, on 13 July 2018. Mr Yeo was part of the Thai cave rescue operation.

SINGAPORE — Singaporean diver Douglas Dylan Yeo, who is turning 50, was on Tuesday (July 10) involved in the rescue operations for the group of boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand.

Mr Yeo was unsure at first if he should go, and arrived in Chiang Rai at the last minute on Monday. He joined the rescue team early next morning and together with other rescue divers, worked for more than nine hours until everyone left in the multi-chambered cave were extricated that day.

He had to face pitch black, muddy and slippery conditions, and waddled through waters with zero visibility at times, but all these were momentarily forgotten when he made eye contact with a boy lying on a stretcher.

"He looked up at me and in that moment — I just have no words to express — his eyes (spoke) volumes, like he had so much to tell you."

The boys, 12 of them aged 11 to 17, were from a football team named "Wild Boars". They and their 25-year-old coach had been trapped inside the flooded Tham Luang cave on the border with Myanmar since June 23.

Mr Yeo, who has three sons and runs a diving school in the Indonesian island of Bintan, returned home on Friday night. Before he boarded his flight back to Singapore, he was still thinking about whether to jet off to Phuket to help in ongoing rescue operations for two passengers who went missing after a tour boat sank.

When he arrived at Changi Airport, he was greeted by his family. His mother Yap Kim Tian, 73, said in Mandarin: "I cannot control him, so when he told us that he wanted to go, I told him to go and return safely. I was definitely worried, but after reading all the reports about him, I am so proud of him... that he's my son."

TODAY caught up with Mr Yeo to talk about the journey.

Singaporean Douglas Yeo, 50 (second from left), posing with fellow rescue divers in the Tham Luang cave. Photo: Douglas Yeo

Why did you decide to get involved in the rescue mission?

I turn 50 (next Tuesday)… being part of the rescue mission is the biggest and best present of my life so far.

I first got this 'calling' to be part of the rescue mission last Saturday, after I saw reports in the newspaper.

I've been diving for the last two decades, doing salvage operations where I dive in zero-visibility conditions, so that made me feel like I needed to do something.

I never thought of anything else, I just decided to go. I contacted a friend who initially wanted to go with me, we booked tickets and the next minute, I was already packed and ready to go. I needed to be fast. It's a life-and-death situation. I just wanted to help.

I used to serve in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and during my overseas training over the years, I made friends. I call them my "brothers" in Thailand. After I left the force, I spent 22 years diving.

But when I picked up the phone and called my brothers, within an hour, I was already connected with the head of operations of the rescue mission.

I have three boys, so when I moved into the cave, I had that thought: If those were my boys, what would I do? I won't be sitting down and calling on the phone, I would move in and go in myself to save them.

Rescue diver Douglas Yeo posing with the Singapore flag with a group of 15 from the rescue operations team. Photo: Douglas Yeo

How did your family react to your decision to join the rescue mission?

The first thing I did was to get my mum, wife and kids to sit down. I asked them to give me the blessing to go. My lovely wife, Georgina, she was supportive. She did tell me to sleep outside on the sofa (laughs), but it was because I had to get up early the next day.

I'm sure everybody was worried, but to be honest, I never saw my mum so calm in 73 years. I have three boys, they are 18, 13 and eight years old. My youngest son Dominique told me: "Papa, I know you can do it."

In which parts of the rescue operations were you involved, and what did you do?

I reached Chiang Rai on Monday, and because there was a lot of paperwork to do, I had to get my passport, embassy details (recorded) down. The Singapore Embassy (in Thailand) was very fast and efficient, and I started work on Tuesday morning. I went to the campsite, and met up with my brothers.

I was stationed directly in chamber two. Chamber one was where the kids were stranded, and chamber three was the exit.

Chamber two was quite a crucial chamber, because you didn't know what was going to happen. There was a lot of mixed feelings inside there. We had to rescue the boys from the water. We waited for instructions from the doctor. When he said "standby", everybody would be in position and it was silent. You could only hear the doctor speaking.

And when he said "go", we would have to carry the stretchers all the way out of the chamber.

Many of the boys, when we were carrying them out, most them were in stable condition, they were breathing.

Inside the cave, it was narrow, rocky, muddy, pitch black. The terrain was basically one where anytime, you could fall. So when we carried the stretchers, we really had to be careful. I myself almost fell… and I was so glad that somebody in the dark just held me by the pants.

You couldn't afford to make any mistake, you had to carry them carefully. Do it fast, but do it carefully. I was in there for a little bit more than nine hours.

We only left the chambers for good when the chief gave the order to go. "Hooyah!"— when he gave that command, we knew the mission was successful, and together we left the cave.

What were some challenges you faced?

I knew it was not going to be easy, that it was going to be tough. Initially, I didn't know whether the other rescuers would accept me, but I just decided to go. I told myself that I was there as a professional, that this was a rescue mission, we were all there to share our knowledge. But they accepted me, and it was such a great honour.

In the tunnel, the water (at some points) went right up to your throat, but you just had to walk through the tunnel. Your heart and mind had to be tough.

When we moved in, with my Thai brothers, we all just went in with one heart. We pushed each other to go on.

Sometimes, even if we had to stop, we told ourselves, if the boys could do it, we could do it, too.

Rescue diver Douglas Yeo (left) with a photo tribute to Saman Kunan, a former navy Seal diver who died in the attempted rescue of a group of Thai boys trapped in a cave. Mr Yeo made it a point to attend Saman Kunan’s wake before returning home to Singapore. Photo: Douglas Yeo

What was the most memorable moment for you during the whole rescue operation?

I remember that I was very fortunate to be stationed just behind the doctor. I was so close to the medical situation, I could hear what the doctor was saying.

I remember when the smallest boy — small, skinny, pale — was taken out, I could see his tiny eyes opening, maybe he was not fully asleep or not sedated enough, but he looked up at me and in that moment — I just have no words to express — his eyes (spoke) volumes, like he had so much to tell you, like he was trying to say thank you, khob khun krab (Thai for "thank you"). At that moment, I told the kid: "You're the hero."

It struck me because I have boys at home and sometimes, they chicken out of things (laughs), so I know, these boys in the cave really had to have guts.

How do you feel seeing the boys being rescued and safe?

I really thank God. I bought them some chocolates, went to the hospital, wanted to pass them personally, but unfortunately, the doctors didn't allow the public to go near them (for fear of infection).

But the next morning, I saw on TV that they were all in the same room, all with their masks, sitting down, safe and sound, and everything was just perfect. Made me think about my boys.

God always knew how I would love to have a brother and now, I have many more brothers all over the world. There was one moment after the rescue, which I thought was very nice. Almost all of us divers were huddled together… people from all over the world, even from France. Nobody knew each other before this, we were there for one purpose, but there was this camaraderie. It was priceless.

There have been a couple of news reports about your involvement in the rescue operations. How are you dealing with the media spotlight?

I will never do any rescue mission for fame. It was just me following my calling. I'll tell anyone the same: Follow your calling, don't hesitate and you'll be blessed. That's how I've lived my life and what I tell my boys. Don't do anything that you're unsure of. At the end of the day, even if I went (to Chiang Rai) and did nothing but just washed the toilet or did the laundry, I'd be more than happy.

Did you keep in touch with your family throughout the mission? Did you miss them? What did they say to you?

(My family) knows me. I don't talk very much. I keep things simple with my wife — my commanding officer. She knew I was safe. I sent her one or two pictures of me during the trip. I told my family my flight details, and my wife said: "I'll see you when I see you."

She knows that I might just make a last-minute decision to go to Phuket to help with the rescue mission for the Phuket boat accident. I'm so near, just at the south of Thailand right now. My lovely wife has been supportive and she has full trust in me.

Now that you're back, what is the first thing you'll do?

I can't wait to go home with my family and have a family dinner. I really miss my brothers and my boys over in Thailand, who are now attending (Thai diver Saman Kunan's) wake. Everybody asked me to stay, but I told them I have work to do. So now that I'm back, I'll have dinner, talk a little bit with my family, go home, shower and have a good rest.

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