Thai rescuers evacuate cave area as rescue bid for trapped boys seen imminent

PHOTO: Royal Thai Navy via AFP

THAM LUANG CAVE, Thailand - Thai authorities on Sunday said they plan to evacuate an area around a cave in northern Thailand where a dozen boys and their football coach have been trapped so that a "rescue operation" can take place.

The announcement came as dark monsoon rainclouds loomed over the mountainous north of the country early on Sunday, potentially heightening risks at the cave where rescuers were still waging a "war with water and time" to save the 12 trapped boys and their assistant coach.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with the 25-year-old chaperone after football practice on June 23 as they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near the border with Myanmar.

"Assessing the situation now, it is necessary to evacuate the area for the rescue operation," said Mae Sai police commander Komsan Sa-ardluan over a loudspeaker. "Those unrelated to the rescue operation, please evacuate the area immediately." A large media contingent began packing up equipment including tripods and cameras, and moving down a muddy hill away from the mouth of the limestone cave.

Following a relatively dry spell, fresh torrential downpours could pose a setback to rescuers who have struggled to drain the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai.

Weather.com forecast sustained thunderstorms lasting through Sunday and Monday, with further stormy weather expected for around the next two weeks.

Narongsak Osottanakorn, a former provincial governor leading the effort said the "ideal time" for a rescue could come in the next two or three days.

"We're still at war with water and time," he told reporters.

Gong Hui, a Chinese diver involved in the operation that has drawn some 130 Thai and international divers, told Reuters on Saturday before the fresh rains that water levels in the cave had "receded a lot" after sustained pumping had removed millions of litres of water.

Time is running out on a plan to teach the boys - some as young as 11 and not strong swimmers - to make a dive through dark, narrow passageways sometimes no more than two-feet (0.6- meter) wide, that have challenged some of the world's leading cave divers.

A former member of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit died during a dive on Thursday night, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as an outing to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys.

Up on the hill, where rescuers are seeking alternative routes down into the cave, another accident occurred when a vehicle skidded off a dirt track, seriously injuring several people, authorities said.

Earlier at the sprawling cave mouth, lines of frogmen and soldiers with flashlights could be seen emerging from the darkness, as generators chugged and pumped water out through plastic pipes.

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

Dozens of Royal Thai Army soldiers were seen resting on rocks outside the cave.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted that a team from his rocket company SpaceX in Los Angeles is building a mini-sub to help with the rescue.

"Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine ... Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust," Musk tweeted, adding that it would take eight hours to construct and 17 hours to transport to Thailand.

The Thai defence ministry said a team from a Musk firm with drilling and exploration know-how should reach the cave on Sunday.

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.

 

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