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John Volanthen has returned to Britain after the successful mission to reach the stranded group in an underground network in Chiang Rai province.

After landing at Heathrow Airport, Mr Volanthen spoke of the relief he felt at seeing the boys rescued after an 18-day ordeal in the Luang Nang Non cave, but was modest about his extraordinary feat.

"We were very pleased and we were very relieved that they were all alive but I think at that point we realised the enormity of the situation and that's perhaps why it took a while to get them all out," he told Sky News.

He added: "We are not heroes. What we do is very calculating, very calm. It's quite the opposite."

British cave diver John Volanthen returns from Thailand after the successful cave rescue of the 12 young footballers and their coach
Image:British cave diver John Volanthen returns from Thailand after the successful cave rescue of the 12 young footballers and their coach
Footage of the boys in hospital was shown in a press conference in Chiang Rai
Image:Footage of the boys in hospital was shown in a press conference in Chiang Rai

There have been calls for Mr Volanthen and Rick Stanton to receive awards for their efforts.

But Mr Volanthen credited the international team of military, navy and civilian divers who all "pulled together".

He also paid tribute to Thai navy diver Saman Kunan, who died while replenishing oxygen canisters, saying his death brought a "bittersweet" taste to an otherwise successful operation.

The IT consultant, in his 40s, who is based in Bristol, and Mr Stanton, a fireman from Coventry who is in his 50s, reached the group nine days after they went missing deep within the labyrinth.

The final four boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought to safety on Tuesday, having entered the network for exploration on 23 June before it became flooded by monsoon rains.

Their rescue was particularly treacherous because the boys, aged 11 to 16, had to swim through tight spaces despite having no previous diving experience. They were given a tranquilliser to keep them calm throughout the process.

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First pictures of cave rescue boys in hospital

On Wednesday video showed the boys recuperating in an isolation ward in hospital, chatting to each other and making two-finger victory signs while their parents waved to them through a glass window.

But it has also emerged that the operation almost ended in disaster when the water pumps failed in the final stage.

Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong, who was the last to leave the cave, has revealed how he heard shouts of alarm as the pumps failed in an area between two chambers, filling them with water as 20 rescuers remained inside.

"Suddenly the Australian guy who was overseeing that area started shouting that the water pump had stopped working," said Mr Chaiyananta.

"If you didn't use the water pump in that location, you could only come out with an oxygen tank," he said, adding the remaining people did not have diving gear to hand.

"By the time the last diver was out, the water was already at head level, almost to the point where he needed an oxygen tank."