Rescuers in race against time to save 13 trapped in cave for over a week

Rescuers in race against time to save 13 trapped in cave for over a week
PHOTO: The Nation/Asia News Network

Rescue teams are racing against the clock in their bid to save 13 members of a local football club, most of them teenagers, from the flooded Tham Luang cave before heavy downpours resume and increase the floodwater level.

"Weather forecast suggests downpours will return on Wednesday," Meteorological Department director-general Wanchai Sakudomchai said yesterday.

Floodwater poses the biggest obstacle to the rescue operations that began on June 23 when the 12 football players from the Mu Pa Academy in Mae Sai district and their coach went missing. They were last seen entering the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province. As flash floods hit the cave, they are believed to have been stranded inside for more than one week now.

According to Medical Services Department's director-general Somsak Akksilp, people can do without food for between 30 and 35 days if they are able to drink water.

Royal Thai Navy SEALs ventured into the cave on June 25 to save the youths amid muddy floodwater, thin air and darkness inside.

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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However, in the middle of last week, even the SEALs had to retreat to a spot closer to the cave's entrance because of the rising and raging floodwaters.

Only after rains eased on Saturday, water-drainage efforts started to yield tangible results paving way for the SEALs to make significant progress inside the cave yesterday.As of press time, the SEALs were already 200 metres from a T-junction inside the cave.

From that point, they will be only be about 1.5 kilometres from the so-called "Pattaya Beach" chamber where the footballers are believed to have gathered to stay clear of the floods.


Photo: The Nation/Asia News Network

The intersection is about 800 metres from the cave's third chamber. Inside the chamber, SEALs have already set up their forward command. Light bulbs and oxygen tanks are stored there. Foreign diving experts from Britain, Australia and China have now joined the SEALs operations.

At present, powerful pumps have been installed to pump out as much water as possible from the cave. The groundwater in nearby areas has been drained away to downstream zones too based on the beliefs that floodwater from the cave will then seep out faster. People living in downstream zones are willing to put up with flooding if it can assist the rescue efforts.

"This is a very good day for me," Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said yesterday evening. His words led to widespread speculation that the rescue efforts must have progressed really well in the day.

According to official records, a helipad has already been prepared atop Doi Pha Mee so that a helicopter can quickly send supplies and equipment for rescue teams working there.


Photo: The Nation/Asia News Network

A shaft there looks promising enough as police paratroopers together with foreign experts have managed to go down to a depth of at least 40 metres.

Explorations are ongoing to determine whether this shaft can connect to the dry part of the Tham Luang cave.

Engineering Institute of Thailand president Thanet Wirasiri, meanwhile, is working on another promising shaft.

"This one is near the far end of the cave," he said. Thanet said the first section of the shaft from its mouth stretched down for about nine metres after which it levelled for a stretch of two metres.

"From there, the shaft stretches down vertically again for about seven metres and hits a rock," he said. Thanet said although big rocks blocked the way, his team had not yet lost hope.

"This is because imaging technologies have suggested that this shaft may connect directly to the latter part of the Tham Luang cave," he said. Thanet said his team would sprinkle colourful powder into this shaft and see whether the water will bring it down to the cave.

"If divers in the cave see the colours, we will plan our next step on how to remove the rock," he said. Drilling solutions have already been taken up as alternate ways to save the stranded victims.

Naval Special Warfare Command chief Rear Admiral Apakorn Yukongkaew meanwhile said the SEALs would not stop searching until the boys were found.


Photo: The Nation/Asia News Network

At the mouth of the cave, medical workers already have plans on how to treat and move victims when the footballers are found. A field hospital has now gone up near the mouth of the cave to perform urgent surgery, if necessary.

Ambulances are on standby and even helicopters, with sky doctors, are prepared to go ahead with airlifting victims once they are found.

READ ALSO: Thai PM visits cave where boys' football team feared trapped

YESTERDAY'S PROGRESS

* The Royal Thai Navy's SEALs set up a forward command in the third chamber of the Tham Luang cave.

* The SEALs venture out of the third chamber to get closer to "Pattaya Beach" where the stranded footballers may have gathered.

* The water level in the cave reduces due to all-out drainage efforts, which include powerful pumps and draining groundwater near the cave.

* Explorations above the cave finish. There are two promising shafts for rescue operations.

* Additional drilling equipment is being brought to suitable areas.

* The area in front of the cave is off-limits to most vehicles, as officials arrange for the fastest transportation for the footballers when they are found.

* Doctors plan swift delivery of medical help.

 

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