World

Teams from U.S., U.K. join search for boys soccer team missing in flooded Thai cave

A U.S. military team and British cave experts joined the search in northern Thailand for 12 boys and their soccer coach missing for five days inside a cave being flooded by near-constant rains.

Rescuers hunt for new cave entrance as rising water levels continue to pose problems

U.S. military personnel return from Tham Luang cave complex during a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, on Thursday. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

A U.S. military team and British cave experts have joined the search in northern Thailand for 12 boys and their soccer coach missing for five days inside a cave being flooded by near-constant rains.

A Thai army general co-ordinating the rescue said Thursday morning that overnight rain had raised water levels again, and authorities had switched off power and water pumps for fear of electrical hazards. Power had just been installed a few days earlier to provide lights and better communications and pump out water.

At a morning briefing, the Thai SEALs explained to the U.S. team that water levels had been rising overnight at a rate of about 15 centimetres an hour, complicating efforts to squeeze through tight passages, some of which require divers to contort their bodies around L-shaped bends.

U.S. team arrives to assist rescue workers as they try to drill into rock 1:08

"There's not much we can do right now," Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said.

Paojinda said a key passageway was completely flooded.

"We have to wait for the water level to decrease. [Divers] can't do anything right now."

The biggest concern is them getting desperate and trying to enter swift moving water.- Anmar Mirza, National Cave Rescue Commission

Later on Thursday, rescuers scoured the mountainside in search of alternative entrances to the cave complex.

The missing boys and coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province on Saturday afternoon. The cave complex extends several kilometres with narrow passageways and uneven ground and is known to flood severely in rainy season.

Hope of survival

Still, authorities have expressed hope there are dry places on higher ground within the cave where the group may be able to wait.

Wirachai Songmetta, the deputy national police chief, said he would join more than 600 rescuers above ground trying to find shafts that might be possible entrances into the cave. The few shafts found so far did not provide access.

"We won't give up. That's the key here," he said as he got into a vehicle that was part of a convoy carrying rescuers.

Relatives pray for missing members of the youth soccer team and their coach near the cave on Thursday. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

Anupong said there are three locations that rescuers are looking at and they will have to work with the geological department and their equipment to explore further, using small cameras, for example.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii confirmed a U.S. team of about 30 people was sent to assist the search. Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said Wednesday that a search and rescue team had been sent at the request of Thailand's government.

Families awaiting word

Some parents of the missing children have been spending the nights in tents outside the cave entrance as the rain poured. On Thursday morning, a Buddhist monk led a prayer for a small group of relatives, many of them red-eyed and crying during the prayer.

Medics sat in a tent nearby, and bicycles, backpacks and soccer cleats the boys left behind remained at the entrance.

Anmar Mirza, national co-ordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission in the U.S. and editor of the Manual of U.S. Cave Rescue Techniques, said that in a situation such as this, it would seem only two things could be done: pump the water down and search for alternative entrances.

Rescue personnel walk out of the entrance to a cave complex on Thursday where it's believed the 12 soccer team members and their coach went missing. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

If there were a high-quality map, drilling would be another possibility, but that is difficult for a number of reasons and could also take days to weeks, he said. Mirza said it was important not to take needless risks.

He said the boys' youth and health are to their advantage, and if the cave is not too cold, they should be able to survive four to five days with no water and a month or more with water but no food.

"The biggest concern is them getting desperate and trying to enter swift moving water."