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Diver who helped Thai cave rescues is himself rescued in Tennessee

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Josh Bratchley( fourth from left) , a British diver who helped rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a Thai cave in July, was himself rescued from a Tennessee cave on Wednesday.

[NEW YORK] Josh Bratchley, a British diver who helped rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a Thai cave in July, was himself rescued from a Tennessee cave on Wednesday.

When Edd Sorenson, a diver who flew in from Florida for the rescue, arrived at an air pocket of Mill Pond Cave in Jackson County, Tennessee, he found Bratchley sitting down, covered head to toe in mud. He looked "like a snowman" if snowmen were made of mud, Sorenson said.

"There he was, calm as could be," Sorenson said. "He just said, ‘Thank you, thank you. Who are you?'"

By 7 pm, more than a day after Bratchley entered the cave with four other divers, Sorenson emerged with Bratchley, who was in good spirits and refused medical treatment. The other four divers had unsuccessfully tried to rescue Bratchley, who had become separated from a line used to guide divers through low-visibility waters. He had no food or water, but enough oxygen to survive in a fortuitously large air pocket.

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"He was awake, alert and oriented," Derek Woolbright, a spokesman for the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency, said at a news conference. "His only request when he got to the surface was that he wanted some pizza."

Much like the Thai rescue, which attracted international attention as the world hoped for the boys' safe return despite seemingly long odds, rescuers feared Wednesday's operation would not end well. The other divers believed Bratchley might have been unable to get out of the 55-degree water, which most likely would have led to fatal hypothermia. Sorenson said he could have gotten to the air pocket sooner, but he had first searched nooks and crannies for a body.

The cave is about 400 feet long with little visibility, sharp turns and tight passages that required divers to move single file. It is not yet known how Bratchley got separated from the line, but Sorenson found it broken.

Bratchley's group first emerged from the cave at 3 pm on Tuesday, and realised they had not all come out. After several unsuccessful attempts at rescue, the other divers called 911 around 1 am Wednesday, Woolbright said.

Around 2.30 am, Sorenson's phone rang in Marianna, Florida. He quickly packed up his diving gear and booked a flight; the Tennessee Highway Patrol greeted him at the airport with a helicopter to take him to the cave.

Though Sorenson brought enough air to get both men out of the cave, Bratchley had conserved enough for himself, Sorenson said. Bratchley had unsuccessfully tried three times to find his way out, and decided he should save any remaining air for a potential rescue, Sorenson said.

The operation lasted about an hour, much faster than Sorenson had expected, he said. Those in need of rescue are often hysterical or panicked, but Bratchley's mental state was "impeccable," leading to a smoother rescue, Sorenson said.

Bratchley, who dives as a hobby, is a meteorologist at the Met Office, Britain's national weather service. He said after the Thai rescue that he was "directly involved in the operation as a cave rescue diver, working in the dive team to get the children out one at a time."

Sorenson, a regional coordinator for the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery Team, has rescued five other people stuck in caves, he said. He told the Jackson County Floridan in March that he has never asked for payment or expense reimbursements.

Rescues are rare; he is called far more often to recover bodies, he said.

"Putting people in body bags all the time is no fun," he said. "And when you get to send one home, it's an exceptional feeling."

NYTimes