“Thirteen,” came the voice in the darkness of the cave, as a team of rescuers asked how many were still alive.
The answer, late Monday, confirmed to rescuers that they were witness to a stunning feat of survival. An entire soccer team of Thai schoolchildren and their coach, missing for nine days kilometers inside a flooded cave complex, were all somehow still alive.
The discovery of the “Wild Boars” soccer team sparked scenes of wild jubilation across Thailand. But their ordeal is not over yet. With heavy rains forecast, rescuers are racing against the clock to find a way to get the famished and traumatized boys safely out of the hazardous cave network, where they are stuck somewhere between 800 – 1000 meters below the surface.
How did they go missing?
The 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach went missing on June 23 after practice, when they went to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. The boys left their backpacks and shoes at the cave entrance, carried no food and had only one flashlight, the batteries of which soon ran out.
They became stranded in the cave complex by a flash flood caused by heavy rainfall, sparking desperate efforts by Thai authorities, assisted by international specialists, to locate them.
Late Monday, two British divers experienced in cave rescues, accompanied by a team of Thai Navy SEAL divers, found the survivors on an elevated outcrop, perched above a pool of water about 2 kilometers from the cave mouth. They were starving, but had only minor injuries.
A video shot by the rescuers captured their exchange with the boys as they were discovered — and learned that they would have to wait longer to make it out.
“You have been here 10 days,” one of the rescuers says when asked how long they have been stuck in the cave (it was actually nine days). “You are very strong.”
The boys say they are starving, and ask if they can leave today but are told that they need to wait until more help arrives to get them out.
“Not today,” says one of the rescuers. “You have to dive.”
What happens next?
Despite their miraculous survival, the boys are far from out of danger.
The SEAL team, including doctors, has stayed with the boys, setting up lights and communications on the outcrop and giving them energy gels to keep them going while rescuers work out the best approach to get them out.
Options under consideration include waiting until water levels drop — authorities are attempting to pump water out of the cave — or teaching the boys to use diving gear to swim out of the cave.
But monsoon rains, forecast to increase Wednesday, and the seriously weakened physical state of the group, present challenges. Thai Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said Tuesday that the dive option may be attempted in the coming days before heavy rains made the task even more hazardous.
“As rain is forecast in the next few days, the evacuation must speed up. Diving gear will be used. If the water rises, the task will be difficult. We must bring the kids out before then,” Anupong said, according to the Bangkok Post.
Ben Raymenants, a diver among the international team assisting rescue efforts, painted a bleak picture of the challenges faced by the rescuers in comments to Sky News. He said the rescue teams had relied on a 30-year-old map to speculate where the boys may have found shelter in the cave complex — and that is was “pure luck” that they were there.
He said the boys, who had not had solid food for 10 days and survived by drinking water dripping from the walls, “need to get their strength again, because right now they can’t do anything at all. They have muscle atrophy, they can barely stand up.”
He cautioned against the approach of trying to teach the boys to dive, due to their weakened state, the fact they couldn’t swim, and the extreme challenges of the cave system.
“It is very far, and very complex. There is current. The visibility can be zero at times. So … the risk that they will panic is there,” he said.
Raymenants said that continuing to pump water out so the level dropped by several feet, then floating the boys out on life jackets, was a safer bet — but that might not be possible, given the forecasts for heavy rains. Another option was that Thai army doctors would remain in the cave with supplies to sustain the boys until the water levels dropped sufficiently to get them out — potentially months away.
What's been the reaction?
Despite the serious challenges still ahead, news of the boys’ survival has met a rapturous response in Thailand.
Messages of gratitude toward the international team involved in the rescue, written in multiple languages, have flooded social media; near the cave mouth, security teams have had to turn away crowds of wellwishers who have turned up to show their support.
"This incident has shown the unity of the Thai people,” said Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in response to the news. “Today is a good day for all Thai people, including the families of the children.”
Cover image: A family member shows a picture of four of the twelve missing boys near the Tham Luang cave at the Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in Mae Sai on July 2, 2018. (LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)