Five Thai divers begin rescue for 12 boys, coach


Associated Press

MAE SAI, Thailand

A Thai governor says the operation to bring out 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach from deep inside a cave where they have been trapped for two weeks has begun.

The acting Chiang Rai governor told reporters early Sunday that “today is D-Day” with 13 foreigner and five Thai divers taking part in the rescue.

He says the divers went in at 10 a.m. and the boys will gradually come out accompanied by two divers each. He says the earliest they will come out is 9 p.m. Sunday (10 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time).

The only way to bring them out is by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air.

Experienced cave rescue experts consider an underwater escape a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.

But the governor supervising the mission said earlier that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation that won’t last if it rains again.

Worried that heavy monsoon rain could soon make the job even more difficult, Thai officials said Saturday that they may need to quickly rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a partially flooded cave by helping them make risky dives to safety.

The boys, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach have been trapped for two weeks – since June 23, when they went exploring in northern Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave after a practice game. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.

The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.

The local governor supervising the rescue mission said Saturday that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created appropriate conditions for an underwater evacuation, but that they won’t last if it rains again.

Thai officials are stressing that they may have to act very soon – meaning within the next couple of days. If weather forecasts are correct, access to the cave could soon close again due to flooding from seasonal monsoon rains.

Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy downpour.

Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said authorities were waiting for two big groups of volunteer foreign divers to arrive this weekend, after which they will be ready to act quickly to bring the team members out when the conditions are right.

Narongsak said experts told him flooding from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 108 square feet.

“I confirm that we are at war with water and time from the first day up to today,” he said.

“Finding the boys doesn’t mean we’ve finished our mission. It is only a small battle we’ve won, but the war has not ended. The war ends when we win all three battles – the battles to search, rescue and send them home.”

The death on Friday of a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, underscored the risks of making the underwater journey. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working in a volunteer capacity and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the route to where the boys and others are sheltered.

Rescuers are also pursuing other options to extract the boys, hoping that finding a shaft or drilling into the mountain in which the cave is located will lead them to a sort of backdoor entrance.

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