Thailand cave rescue: What now for the boys?

Thailand cave rescue: What now for the boys?
This handout video grab taken from footage released by The Royal Thai Navy late July 2, 2018, shows missing children inside the Tham Luang cave.
PHOTO: AFP

The rescuers dubbed it "mission impossible" but they defied the odds to locate the 12 boys and their football coach deep in a cave complex. However, the hard part may yet be ahead: getting them out safely.

Here are a few ways the hungry and weak boys could get out, none easy options.

Could they dive out?

In theory yes: but it is an extremely difficult task. Cave diving is already very risky, especially for young boys in a weakened state who have no diving experience.

Tham Luang cave where the boys have been trapped is one of Thailand's longest at 10 kilometres (six miles) and one of the hardest to navigate with its winding and at times narrow corridors.

If they dive, they have no choice but to follow the steps that rescuers took though tiny passageways clogged with mud and silt.

That journey takes a healthy -- and skilled -- Navy SEAL diver about six hours.

Officials said they would attempt to train the boys to use crucial diving gear after they are rehabilitated with food, water and medical support.

"Cave diving is a very technical skill and it's extremely dangerous, especially for an untrained diver," Anmar Mirza, coordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission, told AFP.

"So they may end up being better off trying to supply them in cave until they can be gotten out by other means."

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Could they be dug out?

Explorers have spent days scouring the mountain top for possible alternative openings. They have found a few "promising" leads and have tried to drill deeper.

But there is no indication that any of those chimneys connect to the chamber where the boys have been stranded.

Again, the boys need to spend time getting stronger in the depths of the cave before they can attempt to climb up a second entry -- if one is found -- or be lifted out.

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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What about walking out?

This would be the safest option, but at the moment it is impossible because parts of the route remain flooded.

So in theory they could wait, but that means hoping that flood waters subside.

Water pumps are working around the clock to drain the floods though it has been an uphill battle for much of the week as heavy rains refused to let up.

If the current break in bad weather sticks, this option could be more promising.

But weather forecasters warn downpours may soon return as monsoon season sets in.

"If the rain fills up the cave system then that might take months before the water drops again," Belgian diver Ben Reymenants, owner of Blue Label Diving in Thailand who is assisting the search, told AFP.

How long could it take?

Hard to say for sure. It depends how long it takes for them to regain strength.

Experts say they could remain inside for weeks -- or even months -- as rescuers work out the safest option for their extraction.

The military said Tuesday it was preparing enough food for four months but did not speculate they could be in there that long.

Are the boys even in the right mindset to move?

They clearly want to leave. In footage that emerged after the boys were found by two British divers late Monday one asks to "go outside."

One of the divers replies "I know, I understand... no, not today."

Even if they are physically fit enough to dive, they will need the mental prowess to stay calm in the murky waters and claustrophobic passageways that stand between them and freedom.

Fortunately, they seem in pretty good shape, considering.

"They're mentally stable which is actually pretty good," Reymenants said.

"Luckily the coach had the sanity of mind to keep them all together, huddled together to conserve their energy, that basically saved them."

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