Trapped boys may have to dive from cave despite dangers, Thai official says
‘Significant technical challenges and risks’ remain, says British Cave Rescue Council
Heavy rains forecast for northern Thailand could worsen flooding in a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach are waiting to be extracted by rescuers, possibly forcing authorities to have them swim out through a narrow, underwater passage in the cavern, a top official said Tuesday.
The group, who disappeared when flooding trapped them in the cave they were exploring on June 23 after a soccer game, were found by rescue divers late Monday night in the cavern in northern Chiang Rai province during a desperate search. The effort drew international help and has riveted Thailand.
The boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach were described as healthy and being looked after by seven members of the Thai navy SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave. They were mostly in stable condition and have received high-protein drinks.
While efforts to pump out floodwaters are continuing, it's clear that some areas of the sprawling cavern cannot be drained, said Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda, a member of Thailand's ruling military junta. In order to get them out ahead of the bad weather forecast for later in the week, they might need to use diving gear while being guided by professional divers, he said.
Anupong said the boys would be brought out via the same complicated route through which their rescuers entered, and he conceded that if something went awry, it could be disastrous.
"Diving is not easy. For people who have never done it, it will be difficult, unlike diving in a swimming pool, because the cave's features have small channels," he said. "If something happens midway, it could be life-threatening."
Video released early Tuesday by the Thai navy showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting on a dry area inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave above the water as a spotlight from a rescuer illuminated their faces.
'They can't swim'
Cave rescue experts have said it could be safer to simply supply them where they are for now, rather than attempting to have the boys dive out. That could take as long as months, however, given that Thailand's rainy season typically lasts through October.
"Now the biggest challenge comes, to get them out, because these boys, they can't swim," said Ben Reymenants, a member of the rescue team.
"There aren't too many options. Do we teach them to dive quickly? But it's a 2½-kilometre swim. Do we design some suit or mask to get them out … or do we keep pumping until the cave goes dry and we can actually walk them out? But the weather isn't on our side," he told CBC News via Skype.
SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said Tuesday that seven members of his unit — including a doctor and a nurse — are now with the 12 boys and their coach in the cave where they took shelter.
"We have given the boys food, starting from easily digested and high-powered food with enough minerals," Arpakorn told a news conference.
Family members who have kept vigil at the mouth of the cave since their ordeal began June 23 rejoiced at the news that their boys and their coach had been found.
"I want to give him a hug. I miss him very much," said Tham Chanthawong, an aunt of the coach. "In these 10 days, how many million seconds have there been? I've missed him every second."
'You are very strong'
Rescue divers had spent much of Monday making preparations for a final push to locate the missing boys and their coach, efforts that had been hampered much of the week by flooding that made moving through tight passageways filled with muddy water difficult.
A pair of expert cave divers from Britain found the group about 300 to 400 metres past a section of the cave on higher ground that was thought to be where they might have taken shelter.
In the five-minute navy video, the boys are seen wearing their soccer uniforms and are calm, curious and polite. They are also keen to get some food.
After an initial exchange in which a rescuer ascertains that all 13 are present, one of the boys asks what day it is, and a rescuer replies: "Monday. Monday. You have been here — 10 days."
The rescuer tells them "you are very strong," but soon the traditional reserve of Thai children toward adults breaks a bit, and one tells another in Thai, "Tell them we are hungry."
Narongsak said Tuesday that the missing were given high-protein liquid food, painkillers and antibiotics. He said doctors had advised giving the medicine as a preventative measure.
Difficult diving conditions
The British Cave Rescue Council, which has members taking part in the operation, said in a statement that "although water levels have dropped, the diving conditions remain difficult and any attempt to dive the boys and their coach out will not be taken lightly because there are significant technical challenges and risks to consider."
Joining the British are other cave experts from around the world and teams from the U.S., Australia, China and elsewhere.
Authorities said efforts would also continue outside the cave, where teams have been scouring the mountainside in search of other entrances to the caverns below. Several fissures have been found and teams have explored some, though so far none have led to the trapped boys.
Dr. Sura Jeetwatee, who is part of the operations, said the boys were able to walk and had survived by staying where they were and drinking water that dripped from stalactite formations.
"They were smart to drink water in the cave," Sura said.
Assistant government spokesperson Col. Athisit Chainuwat said rescuers were trying to install lights, a power supply and get communications equipment to the group.
With files from CBC News and Reuters