Thai cave rescue: Farmers happy even though fields ruined to help clear exit for trapped boys

Thai cave rescue: Farmers happy even though fields ruined to help clear exit for trapped boys
PHOTO: AFP

MAE SAI, THAILAND - His fields are submerged and his ducks nearly wiped out by water being frantically pumped from the cave that holds captive 12 boys and their football coach, but Thai farmer Lek is delighted to help the rescue bid.

Standing near his ruined land, Lek Lapdaungpoin says he is proud of his small but significant contribution to battling the rescue operation's main enemy - water.

"With the farming, we can make money again. But 13 lives are not something we can create," he said, estimating that five districts and hundreds of acres had been damaged in the lowlands around the Tham Luang cave complex.

Flooding is seasonal in Thailand, but for many in the vicinity of the cave the scale is sudden and massive.

Water inside the cave has blocked the boys' escape route.

Nineteen high-powered pumps are in place to reduce the water level, which has come down by 1cm each hour.

Also read: Rescuers ponder how to extract boys from flooded Thai cave as more rain due

"The problem is there is not enough power if we are running many pumps at the same time," said Thai fireman Poonshak Wonjsangiam.

Still authorities say more than 128 million litres of water have been sucked out of the 10km-long cave in northern Thailand, enough to fill 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Mountainside creeks have also been diverted in the hope of limiting water run-off into the cave where the boys have languished since June 23.

The excess water has been funnelled onto nearby fields, streams and hastily dug underground wells.

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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A break in rain that has held since Tuesday brought levels down, but not enough for easy passage between a key chamber separating rescuers from the muddy embankment where the boys and coach are sheltering, water lapping at the edge.

"There is so much (water)," said Shigeki Miyake, of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Thailand, who is assisting with draining. "No-one can calculate it."

He is among scores of experts in diving, caving, drilling and emergency response from all over the world who have converged on the Tham Luang cave.

The mountain which harbours Tham Laung now looks like it is undergoing surgery as long tubes run from the cave down its slopes, gushing water around the clock.

That has turned the area near the cave entrance into a quagmire of thick mud.

Thai farmer Lek Lapdaungpoin and his wife at their farm flooded by water pumped from Tham Luang cave.Photo: AFP

Farmer Lek is one of many unsung heroes pitching into the rescue as volunteers offering their time and services have arrived at the crowded site.

Nearly 50 acres of Lek's land has been inundated and he says 100 free-ranging ducks have perished or gone missing since their food source in the fields was flooded.

"But we don't think about the damage," his wife Koung said.

It is a reflection of the can-do attitude that has gripped Thailand since the boys went missing, a spirit of "dedication and sacrifice" applauded Thursday (July 5) by Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a rare letter directed to the nation.

But some of the well-meaning efforts have backfired.

Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn said Thursday some unregistered volunteers accidentally pumped water back in the direction of the cave.

Rescuers are also trying to find entrances through drilled passageways in the limestone rock above.

But they are working against the clock.

The water levels in the cave lowered to waist levels in some parts thanks to near-perfect weather, but the forecast is for the monsoon rains to return on Friday.

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