Four members of the youth football team who have been trapped inside Thailand’s Tham Luang cave for two weeks have reached safety, Thai officials have said. It was earlier claimed that six had been rescued. The first two boys from the Wild Boar academy team reached the surface before 6 PM local time (12 GMT). Eighteen divers began a daring rescue mission on Sunday to free the 12 Thai boys and their football coach from deep inside the cave in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. Narongsak Osottanakorn, Chiang Rai’s governor, said the conditions for the rescue were the best they had been since the young football team was discovered by British cave divers on Monday night. They have been trapped for two weeks after being blocked in by rainwater while exploring the cave.
“Today is D Day. The boys are ready to face any challenges,” rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters near the cave site as weather forecasters warned of more monsoon rains late on Sunday that would cause more flooding in the cave. Not long after the international media was ordered away from the cave’s entrance, a team of 13 international divers and 5 Thai Navy seals began the rescue mission, the Thai government announced. Narongsak Osottanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province, said that in addition to the Thai team, the rescuers were from the US, Australia, China and Europe. With water levels reaching their lowest parts in one of the chambers in the last 10 days, it was decided that now was the best time to get the boys out. More rains are expected in the coming days, and oxygen levels were rapidly depleting. After an unseasonal dry spell, and furious efforts to pump out deep floodwater from the 2.5-mile narrow passageway separating the boys from the exit, the water was now at its “lowest” levels to date and most of the path was walkable, he said. “A new storm is coming. If we wait and rain water comes in, our readiness will be lower than now,” said the governor.
“I can assure that they are ready and they are determined and ready to be extracted. The boys are determined get out and their families are all informed and agreed with the decision,” Narongsak Osotthanakorn said. “I am asking everyone to wait for an update but we need the support from all and your best wishes for the successful of this operation.” The rescue team includes 13 international divers and five Thai navy seals. The rescue operation began at 10am and the boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach, will be taken out one by one, accompanied by two divers each. Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakam said the whole operation could take approximately two to four days, “depending on weather and water conditions”. An Australian doctor assessed the boys on Saturday night and gave the all clear for the taxing physical journey. Earlier examinations had concluded that they had been too weakened by the ordeal of their first week with no food to subject them to a perilous dive. Concerns have been running high all week the children, some of whom reportedly cannot swim, may panic while passing through murky floodwater in a labyrinth of jagged passageways that have challenged even the most experienced of divers.
The death of former Navy Seal diver, Saman Kunan, 38, who ran out of oxygen on Thursday night as he was delivering air tanks through the cave network, highlighted the dangers of an underwater extraction. An update Saturday from the Thai navy said three navy SEALs were with the boys and their coach, one a doctor. The 13 were having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and were being taught diving skills. Food, electrolyte drinks, drinking water, medicine and oxygen canisters have been delivered to them. A major concern of the rescuers is that oxygen levels in their safe space could fall dangerously low. Rescuers have been unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks. But Navy Seals, who have remained with the boys since Monday, have been training them how to use scuba gear, and they may be given full face masks to help keep them calm. Medical teams have been rehearsing evacuation drills for days, and a helicopter may be used to whisk the boys quickly to hospital. On Sunday morning, the media and all unnecessary personnel were asked to leave the entrance of the site, to give rescue teams more space to work.
The rescue mission is far from over. To reach the boys, divers must navigate a series of dark, flooded tunnels for up to six hours. With the entire round trip taking roughly 11 hours to complete, it could be days before the entire group emerges. Describing the “very smooth operation,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said the boys were rescued using full face masks. The first one was rescued about three hours ago. He said the clock is continuing to tick for the remaining boys, and rescuers are going to focus on replacing the oxygen tanks so they can continue the operation. He said he didn’t know when they would be able resume getting out the boys, but he estimated in approximately 10 hours, but no more than 20. Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Saturday that experts told him water from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square meters (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 boys and their coach became stranded when they went exploring in the cave after a practice game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days. The ordeal has riveted Thailand and made global headlines, and the search and rescue operation has involved international experts and rescuers. President Donald Trump said in a tweet on Sunday: “The U.S. 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!”