Expert divers have till now rescued four of the 12 boys trapped in a flooded Thai cave along with their soccer coach for more than two weeks, after a dangerous and complicated operation was undertaken on Sunday amid heavy rain and the threat of rising water level. The Thai cave rescue operation started with international effort on Sunday morning was paused to replenish air tanks along the treacherous exit route. It may take almost another day before more boys could be taken out.
Eight boys and the coach are still inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. Bringing out everyone could take up to four days, but authorities said the initial success raised hopes that could be done.
“The operation went much better than expected,” Chiang Rai acting Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, who is overseeing the mission, told the media.
While the identity of the rescued boys were not disclosed, Narongsak Osatanakorn said the four rescued boys were taken to a hospital in Chiang Rai, the provincial capital, for evaluation. He said the next phase of the operation would resume after about 10-20 hours.
His announcement, at a news conference more than an hour after helicopters and ambulances were seen rushing from the cave area, drew cheers and applause.
Narongsak had said Sunday was the “D-day” when the complicated effort was launched in the morning.
As many as 13 foreign divers and five Thai navy SEALs are taking part in the operation that entails taking the boys from where they have been sheltering and through dark, tight and twisting passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents.
The boys have been getting diving lessons since July 2 when the first searchers found them. During the rescue operation, two experts divers are to accompany each of the boys.
According to cave rescue experts, an underwater escape can be the last resort, especially when people are trained in diving.
On Friday, a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, died as he ran out of oxygen supply. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working as a volunteer and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the exit route.
Authorities said recent weather conditions had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation. Those conditions won’t last if the rain resumed, Narongsak said.
After the four boys were removed from the cave, heavy rain started. The potential for rising water and the dwindling oxygen levels added to the urgency of getting the team out. Efforts to pump water out of the cave have been set back by heavy downpours.
Narongsak said Saturday experts told him new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square metres (108 square feet).
The next phase of the operation would start sometime on Monday after rescue teams replenish the supply of oxygen tanks along the route.
On Sunday night, Thai navy SEALs posted a celebratory note on their Facebook page, saying: “Have sweet dreams everyone. Good night. Hooyah.”
The boys and their coach, whose team is known as the Wild Boars, became stranded when they were exploring the cave after a practice game on June 23.
Monsoon flooding cut off their escape route and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
The ordeal has riveted Thailand and captured the world’s attention. The search and rescue operation has involved dozens of international experts and rescuers, including a US military team.
Their plight has transfixed Thailand and the rest of the world, with more than 1,000 journalists registered to cover the rescue staking out a small patch of muddy land at the top of a hill near the entrance.
“Everyone who is not involved with the operations has to get out of the area immediately,” police announced via loudspeaker at the site on Sunday morning.
“From the situation assessment, we need to use the area to help victims.” They gave a deadline of 9:00 am to clear out, setting off a frenzy of moving and packing.
The order to leave the site came as irritation over the media presence grew, and a day after the rescue mission chief said conditions were perfect for the evacuation to begin.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Saturday said a team he had sent for the Thailand cave rescue operations is working closely with experts from the country on an escape capsule design to bring the 12 schoolchildren and their football coach trapped in a partially flooded cave to safety.
“Some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand. Iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try,” Musk tweeted on Saturday.
“Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does,” he added.
Alarmed by the urgency, Musk earlier announced on Twitter that engineers from his SpaceX and Boring Company, which digs tunnels for advanced transport systems, would head to Thailand on Saturday to help the government in the rescue operations.
President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday: “The US is working very closely with the Government of Thailand to help get all of the children out of the cave and to safety. Very brave and talented people!”
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families that were made public Saturday. The notes were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey.
One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: “Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love.” “Don’t be worried,” wrote another boy, Mick. “I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I’m happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all.”
One particularly touching note from another boy said: “I’m doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don’t worry. Although, don’t forget to set up my birthday party.” In a letter of his own, coach Ekapol Chanthawong apologised to the boys’ parents for the ordeal.
“To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologise to the parents,” he
(With inputs from agencies.)