Time is running out to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a partially flooded cave, as Thai officials have revealed heavy monsoon rain could soon make the dives to safety risky.
Falling oxygen levels in the group’s small safe space is also of major concern, prompting officials to work swiftly to plan an evacuation.
The boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have been trapped since June 23, more than two weeks since they went exploring in northern Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave after a practice game.
There are reports the rescue operation has already begun, however this has not been confirmed by officials or authorities.
Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
The only way to reach the group was by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air.
Getting out via the same route looks like the only feasible option, but a high-risk one, Thai officials said. Experienced cave rescue experts consider an underwater escape a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are.
The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
The local governor supervising the rescue mission said Saturday that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created appropriate conditions for an underwater evacuation, but that they won’t last if it rains again.
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Thai officials are stressing that they may have to act very soon — meaning within the next couple of days. If weather forecasts are correct, access to the cave could soon close again due to flooding from seasonal monsoon rains.
Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy downpour.
Chiang Rai acting Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said authorities were waiting for two big groups of volunteer foreign divers to arrive this weekend, after which they will be ready to act quickly to bring the team members out when the conditions are right.
Narongsak said experts told him flooding from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square meters.
“I confirm that we are at war with water and time from the first day up to today,” he said.
“Finding the boys doesn’t mean we’ve finished our mission. It is only a small battle we’ve won, but the war has not ended. The war ends when we win all three battles — the battles to search, rescue and send them home.”
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families made public Saturday. The notes were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey to act as postmen.
An update Saturday from the Thai navy said three navy SEALs, one of which is also a doctor, were with the boys and their coach. The 13 are having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and are being taught diving skills. Food, electrolyte drinks, drinking water, medicine and oxygen canisters have been delivered to them.
Rescuers have been unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks.
The death on Friday of a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, underscored the risks of making the underwater journey. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working in a volunteer capacity and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the route to where the boys and others are sheltered.
Rescuers are also pursuing other options to extract the boys, hoping that finding a shaft or drilling into the mountain in which the cave is located will lead them to a sort of backdoor entrance.
Tech billionaire Elon Musk has sent a team of engineers to Thailand to see if they can help in the rescue effort. Musk’s Boring Company digs tunnels for advanced transport systems and has advanced ground-penetrating radar.
A spokeswoman for the Boring Company who declined to be named said it is in talks with the Thai government and people on the ground to determine how they could best assist their efforts.