Classmates yearn for safe return of Thai boys trapped in cave as search enters 10th day

PHOTO: Reuters

CHIANG RAI, BANGKOK - Classmates of 12 boys trapped in a flooded Thai cave spoke of their hopes for a miracle rescue on Monday (July 2), as divers inched through thick mud and water towards an air pocket where the group is believed to be.

There has been no contact with the boys, aged between 11 and 16, since they went missing with their coach after a football practice on June 23.

The massive rescue effort has been hampered by heavy rain that flooded the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand, blocking access to chambers where it is hoped the group will be found alive. Divers took advantage of a brief window of good weather on Monday to edge further into the cave, with forecasters predicting a return of wet conditions on Wednesday (July 4).

Rescuers in Thailand on Monday scrabbled to clear a constricted passageway for divers deep inside the flooded cave complex, which runs for 10km beneath the mountains in northern Chiang Rai province.

Aside from belongings left at the mouth of the Tham Luang cave and handprints on cave walls, there has been no trace of them found since.

With the way out of the cave blocked by floodwaters from the heavy rain, rescuers are hoping that the boys made it through to an elevated rock mound that cavers have nicknamed "Pattaya Beach" after one of Thailand's best-known tourist destinations.

Friends and teachers of the "Wild Boar" football team refused to give up hope of seeing the young players again.

All 13 members of Thai junior football team found in flooded cave

  • Parents of the boys trapped in the Chiang Rai cave shed tears of joy and relief on Wednesday morning as they watched a video of them being treated for minor injuries.
  • The Royal Thai Navy SEALS shot the video and posted it on their “ThaiSEAL” Facebook page, showing the 12 boys noticeably thinner and looking exhausted.
  • But the boys swaddled in silvery blankets proclaim themselves in good health in the clip.
  • Their parents watched the video while they were waiting to talk to the boys via a specially rigged phone system.
  • They reaffirmed their love for the children and said they were forgiven for going astray, since none of them could have expected the June 23 cave excursion would turn into a nail-biting 10-day drama, with no clear end yet in sight.
  • Attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometers of dangerously flooded tunnels.
  • The navy has raised the possibility that the 13 could be in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province until the flood waters recede, at the end of the rainy season in four months.
  • But others say the boys could be out in a matter of days if the weather is on their side and water can be pumped out of the cave complex, and if they can be taught to use scuba gear.
  • Kobchai Boonarana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, said it was up to the rescue team in the cave to decide whether and when the boys would be strong enough to tackle the journey out.
  • “We miss them and want to see them get out very soon,” one parent said as the video played. “They look thinner, but we’re happy they’re safe.”
  • Rescuers found all 12 boys and their football coach alive inside the flooded Tham Luang Cave Monday night.
  • The 13 victims from a local football club, Mu Pa Academy Mae Sai, have been stranded inside the cave in Chiang Rai province because of flash floods since June 23.
  • The group, mostly seated and with baggy football shirts pulled over their knees and illuminated by torchlight, asked for food and to leave the cave immediately, according to the video taken late Monday and shared on the official Facebook page of the Thai Navy SEALS.
  • The group appeared exhausted, rake thin, sensitive to the light but lucid, with some speaking faltering English to try to communicate with the unidentified diver.
  • Family members celebrate while camping out near Than Luang cave following news all members of children's football team and their coach were alive in the cave at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province late July 2, 2018.
  • The Chiang Rai governor praised and gave credits to two British cave diving experts who found the missing team. He did not mention the names but it is understood to be John Volanthen and Richard Stanton (pic, in blue).
  • Three British cave-divers, Richard William Stanton (L), John Volanthen (2nd-L) and Robert Charles Harper (3rd-L) arrive at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park near the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai on June 27, 2018
  • 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year old assistant football coach went missing on Saturday after they decided to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province,
  • despite a sign warning visitors that the maze of passages and chambers was prone to flooding.
  • Bicycles and football shoes belonging to the boys were found near the entrance, and rescue workers think handprints inside the cave could have been left by the group.
  • But the search has so far yielded no other trace.
  • The race to find the boys has gripped the Southeast Asian nation
  • International rescue teams, including one sent by the United States Pacific Command (PACOM),
  • are assisting the Thai army, navy and police in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.
  • Plans to drill into the mountainside overnight to drain water from inside the vast cave complex have been partially successful.
  • The 10-kilometre cave is one of Thailand's longest. Visitors are usually only allowed up to 800 meters inside the cave, which has a reputation for being difficult to navigate.
  • Exhausted family members have been keeping vigil near the cave as they await news about their loved ones.
  • Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the site, offering encouragement to rescuers and comfort to relatives.
  • "Whatever can be done, do it, the government will back it," said Prayuth.
  • "They're athletes. They're strong," he told the boys' relatives in an attempt to comfort them.

Tilek Jana, 14, whose friend Prajak is among the missing, expressed his wish that his friend will soon return.

"Let him come and let's play (football) together, I miss him," he told AFP.

At Mae Sai Prasitsart school, where six of the missing boys studied, special prayers were held for the junior football team during the morning assembly on Monday.

"I am really worried, but I am hopeful because my friend is strong," Thanakorn Ingsilapakul, 15, told Reuters.

The school principal said it had been a painful week.

"We chant and pray and send our support to them to give them power to wait for help to arrive," Kanet Pongsuwan told AFP.

The search for the boys has gripped the nation, with news bulletins dominated by updates on progress made by a mammoth rescue effort involving more than 1,000 personnel.

Divers from a Thai navy Seal unit have been at the forefront of the search, supported by international rescue teams from the United States, Britain and Japan and elsewhere.

"The Seal unit last night reached the T-junction and today they will press ahead to the left, but one obstacle we've found is a very small hole which we need to widen so that people can go through," Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn told reporters on Monday.

"As of now, we have not yet reached Pattaya Beach," he said.

He added that an operations centre has been set up in what rescuers call the cave's third chamber, about 1.7km from the cave's entrance.

Narongsak added that water from the flooded cave has receded in recent days, allowing rescue teams to gain ground.

The seasonal rains have hampered an increasingly desperate search operation, with divers groping their way along the walls of the flooded cave, barely able to see in the muddy water.

As part of the rescue effort, search parties have been lowered down shafts on the mountainside, but it was unclear what progress they had made.

Doctors say the boys could survive for many days without food, but much would depend on whether they found water clean enough to drink.

Officials have dropped survival kits with food, medical supplies and a cave map into a crevice, in the hope that some of the relief will reach the boys.

At 10km long, Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand's longest and one of the toughest to navigate, with its snaking chambers and narrow passageways. A sign outside the site warns visitors not to enter the cave during the rainy season between July and November.