9 Jul 2018

Thai cave rescue: Remaining boys wait for operation to resume

1:41 pm on 9 July 2018

Cave divers in Thailand are poised to restart the high-risk operation to extract the remaining eight boys and their football coach from a vast flooded cave system.

Cave divers in Thailand.

Cave divers in Thailand. Photo: Facebook/Thai NavySEAL

Four boys were brought safely out of the cave on Sunday.

But the mission was paused overnight for air tanks to be replaced.

Rescuers decided to go ahead with the hazardous operation because of fears of rising waters. The group have been trapped since 23 June.

The next phase of the mission to save them was set to begin Monday morning, after relaying "all of the air tanks and all systems along the way", Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Sunday.

Activity at the dive site suggests that the operation to free the remaining members of the group may be about to resume.

Divers have been guiding the boys through darkness and submerged passageways towards the mouth of the Tham Luang cave system. They have reportedly been able to make the last part of the journey on foot.

Rescuers took advantage of a break in the rain to launch the mission much earlier than originally expected.

The first phase has also been conducted much faster than officials had predicted.

A team of 90 expert divers - 40 from Thailand and 50 from overseas - has been working in the cave system.

A happy family member shows the latest picture of the missing boys taken by rescue divers inside Tham Luang cave.

A happy family member shows the latest picture of the missing boys taken by rescue divers inside Tham Luang cave. Photo: AFP

Getting to and from where the boys are has been an exhausting round trip, even for the experienced divers.

The process includes a mixture of walking, wading, climbing and diving along guide ropes already in place.

Wearing full-face masks, which are easier for novice divers than traditional respirators, each boy is being accompanied by two divers, who also carry his air supply.

The toughest part is about halfway out at a section named "T-Junction", which is so tight the divers have to take off their air tanks to get through.

Beyond that a cavern - called Chamber 3 - has been turned into a forward base for the divers.

Thai police guard a road leading to the Tham Luang cave area as operations continue for the remaining eight boys and their coach trapped at the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 9, 2018.

Thai police guard a road leading to the Tham Luang cave area as operations continue for the remaining eight boys and their coach trapped at the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 9, 2018. Photo: AFP

There the boys can rest before making the last, easier walk out to the entrance. They are then taken to hospital in Chiang Rai.

In an indication of how dangerous the journey can be, a former Thai navy diver died in the caves on Friday. Saman Gunan was returning from a mission to provide the group with air tanks when he ran out of oxygen.

He lost consciousness and could not be revived. His colleagues said they would "not let the sacrifice of our friend go to waste".

Who are the boys and their coach?

  • Chanin Vibulrungruang, 11 (Nickname: Titan) - started playing football aged seven
  • Panumas Sangdee, 13 (Nickname: Mig), wrote to his parents: "The Navy Seals are taking good care of me"
  • Duganpet Promtep, 13 (Nickname: Dom) - captain of the Wild Boars, reportedly scouted by several Thai professional clubs
  • Somepong Jaiwong, 13 (nickname: Pong) - reportedly dreams of playing for the Thai national team
  • Mongkol Booneiam, 13 (nickname: Mark) - described by his teacher as a "very respectful and good child"
  • Nattawut Takamrong, 14 (nickname: Tern) - told his parents not to worry about him
  • Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14 (nickname: Bew) - promised his mother he would help her at the shop once he was rescued
  • Adul Sam-on, 14 - member of a volleyball team that came second in a North Thailand-wide tournament
  • Prajak Sutham, 15 (nickname: Note) - described by family friends as a "smart, quiet guy"
  • Pipat Pho, 15 (nickname: Nick) - wrote in his letter he wanted his parents to take him for barbecued food once rescued
  • Pornchai Kamluang, 16 (nickname: Tee) - told his parents "don't worry, I'm very happy"
  • Peerapat Sompiangjai, 17 (nickname: Night) - it was his birthday the day the boys went missing, and his parents have told him they are still waiting to hold his birthday party
  • Assistant coach Ekapol Chantawong (nickname Ake), 25 - apologised in his letter to the parents, but they replied that they did not blame him

How did the group get there?

The boys were found inside the cave by British rescue divers on Monday, about 4km from the cave mouth.

Aged between 11 and 17, they belong to a football club called the Wild Boars, and became trapped during an excursion with their coach.

It took nine days to find them in the underground network's dark depths.

Officials had originally thought the group might have to stay where they were until the rainy season ended - and that could have meant months underground.

They had also been exploring whether they could drill down into the cave, as well as scouring the mountainside for another way in.

But with the rainy season just beginning, it has become clear that the flooding which originally trapped the boys will only get worse in the coming days.

Rescuers have been desperately pumping water out of the cave, and Mr Narongsak said on Sunday that water levels inside were at their lowest levels so far.

- BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs