Thai cave rescuers at 'war with water and time' to free trapped boys

PHOTO: Reuters

CHIANG RAI, Thailand - A rescue mission for a young Thai soccer team and their coach trapped for two weeks in a flooded cave is at "war with water and time", its leader said on Saturday, but was eyeing its best chance yet to free the group before expected heavy rains.

The message of hope came a day after the death of a Thai rescue diver, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as a celebration of one of the boys' birthdays at the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai.

A team of Thai Navy SEALS, soldiers, police and volunteers has been working frantically to drain the cave since the group was discovered on Monday.

They are now teaching the children, aged between 11 and 16 and not all of whom are strong swimmers, to attempt a treacherous dive through narrow, submerged tunnels.

"The next three to four days from now is the best and most ideal time for the rescue operation," Narongsak Osottanakorn, the rescue mission chief and former provincial governor, told reporters.

"The current situation, with the air and water levels and the boys' health, is the best yet," he added.

"We're still at war with water and time. The discovery...was just a small victory, but that doesn’t mean the war is over until we have won all three battles: discovery, rescue, and return home."

READ ALSO: Thai cave rescue: Bird's nest collectors scour for ways into cave to save youth footballers

In another development on Saturday, authorities confirmed the boys had communicated by letter with their relatives, many camped outside the cave's entrance, for the first time since they were found.

An attempt to pass a phone to the boys earlier in the week failed.

In one letter, the boys list the foods they want to eat once safely home, such as fried chicken and "hot pan barbecue" and beg their teachers not to assign too much homework.

The coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, told parents in a separate letter that he would "take the very best care" of the boys and apologised for putting them through their ordeal.

READ ALSO: Thai cave rescue: Many worry that coach may blame himself for ordeal

"DOUBLE POSITIVE"

Ivan Katadzic, a Danish diving instructor who has been ferrying oxygen tanks into the cave, said after a dive on Friday he was "double positive" about the mission because the water level had dropped considerably.

Katadzic has not dived the final kilometre to where the boys are stranded on a muddy bank, the most dangerous part of the dive, during which rescuers have to hold their oxygen tanks in front of them to squeeze through submerged holes.

Alternative rescue plans include stocking the cave with supplies and an oxygen line to keep the boys alive for months until Thailand's monsoon season ends, or drilling a shaft down from the forest above.

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.

Narongsak said the drills would have to pierce 600 metres (1,970 feet) of fragile limestone rock to reach the boys and rescuers were discussing drilling angles.

Besides looking for possible holes from above, the team on the hill above is trying to block holes and divert streams that channel water into the cave before the weather turns.

"Everything is a race against time," said Kamolchai Kotcha, an official of the forest park where the cave complex is located. His team would camp out on the hill to try and finish its work before the rain came, he said.

Growing international interest in the rescue has spurred help from countries such as Australia, Britain, China, Japan and the United States, among others.

On Saturday, Israel's ambassador to Thailand visited the site. "I have been requested by the prime minister of Israel to come and see what kind of assistance the state of Israel can give its friend Thailand," Meir Schlomo told reporters.

The president of soccer's governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to be his guests at the World Cup Final in Moscow on July 15 if they make it out in time.

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