Divers progress in search for missing Thai kids

Divers progress in search for missing Thai kids
PHOTO: AFP

Rescue divers reached several kilometres inside a flooded cave Saturday where 12 boys and their football coach have been trapped for a week, offering a flicker of hope for the harrowing search.

There has been no contact with the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their coach since they went into the Tham Luang cave last weekend and were hemmed in by heavy rains that blocked the entrance.

The desperate, round-the-clock search for the team has been beset by torrential downpours that submerged tunnels near the entrance, blocking divers from going in.

But Navy SEAL divers reached a T-junction in the depths of the cave just two or three kilometres (one to two miles) from where the boys are believed to be, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said.

Divers reached the same spot earlier in the week but were forced back by rushing floodwaters.

This time, divers planted bottles of oxygen along the tunnel walls so swimmers navigating the muddy pools with almost no visibility could stay under for longer.

Water levels inside the complex labyrinth of tunnels finally dropped thanks to dozens of pumps set up to drain the floods even as heavy rain continued to pound the area near the Myanmar and Laos borders.

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    But the boys swaddled in silvery blankets proclaim themselves in good health in the clip.

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    Their parents watched the video while they were waiting to talk to the boys via a specially rigged phone system.

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    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.

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    Attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometers of dangerously flooded tunnels.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    “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.”

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    Rescuers found all 12 boys and their football coach alive inside the flooded Tham Luang Cave Monday night.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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).

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    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

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    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,

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    despite a sign warning visitors that the maze of passages and chambers was prone to flooding.

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    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.

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    But the search has so far yielded no other trace.

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    The race to find the boys has gripped the Southeast Asian nation

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    International rescue teams, including one sent by the United States Pacific Command (PACOM),

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    are assisting the Thai army, navy and police in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.

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    Plans to drill into the mountainside overnight to drain water from inside the vast cave complex have been partially successful.

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    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.

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    Exhausted family members have been keeping vigil near the cave as they await news about their loved ones.

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    Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the site, offering encouragement to rescuers and comfort to relatives.

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    "Whatever can be done, do it, the government will back it," said Prayuth.

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    "They're athletes. They're strong," he told the boys' relatives in an attempt to comfort them.

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"The situation is better today than yesterday and the day before. Water has receded considerably and we are pumping out water in all chambers (near the entrance)," Narongsak told reporters.

As the search for the boys hit its seventh day, attention turned to their chances of survival inside the cave with little or no food and light.

The group likely has access to fresh water -- either dripping in through rocks or rushing in through the entrance -- but experts warned that runoff water from nearby farms could carry dangerous chemicals or bacteria.

"If they drink the water in the caves and it makes them sick it could hasten the problem that they are in, but if they don't drink it then they are also in trouble," Anmar Mirza, coordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission, told AFP.

But even without food he said young, athletic boys could "easily live for a month or a month and a half" with the main challenge their mental resolve.

"The biggest issue that they are facing right now if they are alive is psychological because they don't know at what point they might get rescued," Mirza said by phone from the US state of Indiana.

Practice drills

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The dramatic week-long rescue has galvanised the nation and prompted emotional outpourings online from well-wishers praying for their safe return.

Cartoon images of the smiling boys being found by divers circulated along with messages for the team: "Stay Strong, We are Coming" and "Don't Give Up".

Teams of foreign experts, including more than 30 US military personnel, have descended on the remote mountainous site to join some 1,000 Thai rescuers.

Australian, Chinese and Japanese experts also joined efforts.

"We have the skills of cave rescue and rope rescue so we can try to do something for the children," James Wang, from China's Green Boat Emergency Rescue, told AFP.

Several teams trekked into the thick jungle above the cave desperately looking for new openings that might lead to the trapped boys.

One team was drilling into a 40-metre (130-foot) chimney that led to a muddy chamber, which the governor described as a "promising" lead.

But there was still no indication it linked to the main cave complex.

"We have been rotating our staff into the chimney since yesterday, they are inside... still searching and we are waiting for their findings," Surachai Thathes, chief of the parks ministry rescue team for northern Thailand, told AFP.

Another chimney was discovered nearby and helicopters carrying food, water and medical supplies were dispatched to the area.

But the main priority was trying to reach the boys through the main entrance, governor Narongsak said.

Earlier in the day medics and police staged practice drills to prepare for the quick and complex evacuations that will be required if and when the boys are found.

Stone-faced relatives kept vigil under a makeshift tent near shrines where monks are leading prayers near shrines overflowing with offerings.

Stretching 10 kilometres (six miles) and with complicated, snaking pathways and narrow corridors, Tham Luang is one one of Thailand's longest and toughest caves to navigate.

Officials said the boys know the site well and have visited many times before, buoying hopes that they might have trekked to a large airy chamber in the centre.

Rescuers found footprints and handprints in a chamber near that spot earlier in the week, further in from where they found the kids' football boots, backpacks and bicycles.

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