A massive rescue operation in Thailand was racing against the clock Thursday to pump water from a flooded cave complex, in hopes of allowing 12 boys from a soccer team and their coach trapped inside to wade out before heavy rains hit this weekend.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have been trapped in the cave, about four kilometers from the entrance, since they went missing on June 23.
A team of cave rescue specialists were astonished to find the group, severely malnourished but alive, huddled on a water-surrounded incline inside a chamber deep within the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex late Monday. Now the challenge is to get them out safely through the treacherous network of dark, flooded tunnels that take Thai Navy SEALs more than five hours to navigate each way.
The rescue effort has been working toward three main options: teaching the boys to scuba dive out, locating an opening down to their position to bring them out, or pumping water out of the complex until it is low enough for the boys to exit wearing life jackets.
But a number of variables, including monsoon rains forecast to hit Saturday; the boys’ weakened state and lack of swimming or scuba-diving skills; and the extremely challenging conditions within the cave complex, pose problems for each approach.
Rescuers are also preparing for the scenario where they may need to sustain the group inside the caves for up to four months, until the rainy season ends in October and the water levels naturally recede. But if the expected heavy rains raise the water levels, staying put may not be an option.
A senior Thai rescue officer, Kobchai Boonarana of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, told reporters Thursday that it was up to the rescue team who were supporting the boys with food, water, foil blankets and medical assistance inside the chamber to assess if and when they were up to attempting the journey out.
“Their conditions, we can see that their morale is good, but what about their strength and their ability? That’s up to the team inside to decide,” he said.
“Our job is to keep pumping out water and it is up to the team inside to assess the safety level and whether the kids can travel safely through,” he said.
Water levels dropping — for now
With scuba diving through flooded stretches of the cave network considered extremely dangerous, and no alternative entry point into the chamber yet discovered, pumping the water out of the cave is considered the least risky option.
Taking advantage of a dry spell in the weather over the past few days, rescuers have used hundreds of industrial water pumps in their effort to drain the cave complex — at least to the level where the boys could potentially make their escape without having to submerge or use breathing equipment.
Poonsak Woongsatngiem, a rescue official from Thailand’s Interior Ministry, told the Guardian Thursday that 40 percent of water in the cave had been removed, clearing up a 1.5-kilometer stretch from the cave entrance that rescuers were now able to tackle on foot.
Efforts were now focused on draining a chamber where the water level was up to the cave roof.
“We [are] target[ing] the water in the third chamber to reduce to the point that no diving equipment is needed, like to the waistline, so one can wear just life jackets and walk out,” Woongsatngiem said.
About 30 teams of rangers combed the forest above the cave Thursday in a bid to find a chimney that could potentially be dug out to reach the group, who are believed to be between 800-1000 meters below the surface.
Narongsak Osottanakorn, governor of Chiang Rai, the northern province where the cave is located, acknowledged Thursday that officials were in a race against time. He said the boys could be brought out individually or in smaller groups, depending on their fitness and the prevailing conditions.
“We’re assessing weather conditions: If it rains and the water level rises, how many hours, days, do we have?” he said.
Cover image: Rescue personnel arrive as rescue operations continue for 12 boys and their coach trapped at Tham Luang cave at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 5, 2018. (YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)