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Thai Rescuers Race Rain to Save Soccer Team

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Rescue workers work next to water pumped out of Tham Luang cave complex, where members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach have been found alive, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 5, 2018.

With more rain coming, Thai rescuers are racing against time to pump out water from a flooded cave before they can extract 12 boys and their soccer coach with minimum risk, officials said Thursday.

A firefighter who has been working on draining the water said that levels in parts of a passage leading to a chamber where the boys and the coach were found Monday were flooded all the way to the ceiling, making diving the only way out.

Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Location where 12 young soccer players and their coach are trapped inside a complex cave system.
Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. Location where 12 young soccer players and their coach are trapped inside a complex cave system.

“What we worry most is the weather,” Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn told reporters. “We can’t risk having the flood back into the cave.”

He said he asked Thai navy SEALs in charge of extraction plans to estimate what sort of a risk would be involved to take them out and “what kind of readiness we can have today and decide if we can take that chance.”

He said that not all 13 may be extracted at the same time depending on their condition. He said earlier that the boys have been practicing wearing diving masks and breathing, but he doesn’t believe they have attempted any practice dives.

The teammates and their coach were seen in latest video sitting with Thai navy SEALs in the dark cave, their skinny faces illuminated by a flashlight. The boys, many wrapped in foil warming blankets, take turns introducing themselves, pressing their hands together in a traditional Thai greeting and saying their names and that they are healthy.

“This morning, I have asked for 13 sets of (diving) equipment to be prepared and checked the equipment lists and place them inside (the cave) in case we have to bring them out in this condition with less than 100 percent readiness,” the governor said.

Officials have said they prefer to get the boys out as soon as possible because heavy rain is expected to start by Saturday, which almost surely will raise water levels again in the cave, making passage in some areas even more difficult if not impossible.

They are hoping that an upgraded draining effort can lower the water level in an area where it is still at the ceiling or just about. The idea is to get some headroom so the boys would not be reliant on scuba apparatus for a long stretch and could keep their heads above water.

Trapped since June 23

The boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach disappeared after they went exploring in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Chiang Rai province after a soccer game June 23. The teammates, who were trapped inside when heavy rains flooded the cave, were found by rescue divers Monday night during a desperate search that drew assistance from experts around the globe.

Authorities said the boys, who had also been shown Tuesday in a video shot by the British diver who discovered them, were being looked after by seven members of the Thai navy SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave. They were mostly in stable condition and have received high-protein drinks.

Buddhist monk Kruba Boonchum, center, exits after praying with relatives of the missing children in Tham Luang cave during a rescue operation, July 4, 2018.
Buddhist monk Kruba Boonchum, center, exits after praying with relatives of the missing children in Tham Luang cave during a rescue operation, July 4, 2018.

In all of the videos, the boys appeared in good spirits. In the most recent video, a navy SEAL is shown treating minor cuts on the feet and legs of the boys with antibiotic ointment. Several of the boys are seen smiling as they interact with the navy SEAL, who cracks jokes.

Families, friends, famous monk

Seeing the boys has boosted the mood of their family members, and officials are working to install an internet cable to the cave so that parents can talk to their children.

Kian Kamluang, whose 16-year-old son, Pornchai, is in the cave, said she had thought there was a 50 percent chance that her son would be found.

“It’s like he has been given a new life,” she said, adding that she’ll never let her son go into a cave or near water again.

Those waiting for the boys to come out included a group of students who are friends with some of the boys trapped inside, who sang a song in front of the entrance to show their support.

​Several religious figures have also shown up, the most popular being a famous Buddhist monk, Kruba Boonchum, who when he first visited the scene had predicted that the boys would be found this week.

He returned Wednesday to offer prayers for their safe rescue, and as measure of the respect in which he was held, was allowed access to the cave, which is generally off-limits to outsiders.

Rescue workers come out from the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 3, 2018.
Rescue workers come out from the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 3, 2018.

No rush to remove boys

SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said that there was no rush to bring the group out of the cave, because they’re safe where they are. The current flooding means the boys would have to dive, which rescue experts have said could be extremely dangerous.

While efforts to pump out floodwaters are continuing, some Thai officials have indicated that heavy rains forecast for this weekend could force them to decide the boys should swim and dive out using the same complicated route of narrow passageways through which their rescuers entered.

Authorities said they were still exploring other options, such as scouring the mountainside for other ways into the cave and finding faster ways to pump water from the cave.

Cave rescue experts have said it could be safest to simply supply the boys where they are for now, and wait for the water to go down. That could take months, however, given that Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts through October.

Experienced divers are wary of taking out the boys through the dark and dangerous waters still in the cave, especially since they are untrained.

“We are talking kilometers of transport under the water with zero visibility,” said Claus Rasmusen, a certified cave diving instructor based in Thailand who has been helping Thai SEAL team with logistics. “It’s difficult.”

He said it was awkward, but possible, to teach them minimal skills.

“Nobody will teach anyone a full cave course, but trying to get them comfortable with masks, with the breathing, (is) completely different,” he said. “Creating an environment that can make them safely get away, that’s feasible.”

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