Twelve boys and their soccer coach found alive after 10 days trapped deep inside a flooded cave must learn to dive or endure several months waiting to be rescued, the country’s army says.
The governor of Chiang Rai province said on Tuesday rescue workers are trying to work out how to remove the boys safely.
According to the Thai military, the children could be supplied with food and medical supplies that could last at least four months as they wait for floodwaters to subside, the BBC reported.
“[We will] prepare to send additional food to be sustained for at least four months, and train all 13 to dive while continuing to drain the water,” Navy Captain Anand Surawan said, according to a statement from Thailand’s Armed Forces.
The Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province in Thailand’s north regularly floods during periods of intense rain. The floods can last until late October.
If the children are brought out before the water subsides, they will need basic diving skills to navigate safely through the dangerous conditions caused by murky waters.
Rescue teams have so far failed to pump the water levels lower.
Divers struggled through narrow passages and murky waters to discover the boys late on Monday night on an elevated rock about four kilometres from the mouth of the cave.
A video shot by rescuers in flickering torchlight revealed boys clad in shorts and red and blue shirts sitting or standing on the rock above an expanse of water.
Two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were first to reach the boys, having had strong experience in cave rescues, according to Bill Whitehouse, the vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC).
They found the group along with a team of Thai navy SEAL divers.
Rescuers had been focusing on an elevated mound, which cavers have named “Pattaya Beach”, in the cave complex’s third chamber, knowing that it could have provided the boys with a refuge when rains flooded the cave.
“The SEALs reported that … they reached Pattaya Beach which was flooded. So they went 400 metres further where we found the 13 … who were safe,” Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told the cheering group of reporters.
The boys survival was greeted with jubilation nationwide by Thais who have followed every twist of the harrowing story.
Relatives of the boys, who have been at a shelter near the cave hoping for a breakthrough, were seen cheering, smiling and receiving calls after being given the news. Rescuers shook hands and congratulated each other as occasional cheers broke out.
Aged between 11 and 16, the boys went missing with the 25-year-old coach after soccer practice on June 23 after they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar.
Rescuers now have to decide how best to get the group out in their weakened condition. They have been given energy gels to sustain them while a plan is worked out to bring them to safety.
Options considered included waiting until water levels subsided, or teaching the group to use diving gear to navigate the flooded cave.
“If you ask me now while we are still assessing all sides then I don’t think they will be home soon,” Narongsak said.
The group’s health was assessed overnight by medical teams which will continue to check the health of the group on Monday, said Narongsak, explaining that the boys had sustained light injuries.
“We categorized their health condition as red, yellow or green, red being the most severe injuries, yellow being mild and green being light. Yesterday, unofficially, we assessed that most are in the green category,” said Narongsak.
Narongsak said rescue workers would now focus on the “rescue” phase and then a handover to medical teams waiting outside the cave.
Australian cave diving expert Peter Wolf said the operation would be hampered by the difficult conditions and said there are “probably very few people on the planet who can actually get those provisions to them.”
Wolf, the national director of the Cave Divers Association of Australia, said the task would take several months and suggested the group may be best off staying put for the time being, especially considering some of the boys can’t swim, The Guardian reported.
If the boys are to dive out of the cave, their escape route will be several kilometres in water with limited visibility.
Wolf said the size of the chamber they are trapped in will play a part in how long they can stay, with the amount of clean air inside a concern.
First words of rescued soccer team
Met by British divers, the rescued soccer team used their limited English to communicate with the arriving rescue team.
“How many of you are there – 13? Brilliant,” a member of the multinational rescue team tells the boys.
“You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”
“Thank you,” one of the boys says.
But the conversation quickly turns to pressing matters, with the boys’ hunger a priority.
Noticing the camera and hearing words they don’t immediately understand, one boy says in Thai, “Oh, they want to take a picture; tell him we’re hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat.”
Then the boy breaks into simple English, saying, “Eat, eat, eat.”
One of the boys asks when they will get out of the cave, to which the rescuer answers: “Not today. You have to dive.”