Rescue teams in Thailand raced against the looming threat of more rain to pump out water from a flooded cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been stranded for almost two weeks.
The boys and their coach were found late Monday in weak but otherwise stable and good health in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. But rescuers are having trouble deciding what is the best way to safely extract them, officials said Thursday.
“What we worry about most is the weather,” Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn told reporters. “We can’t risk having the flood back into the cave.”
Poonsak Woongsatngiem, an official from Thailand’s interior ministry, told the Guardian that the water had been reduced by 40% in the last few days, clearing a 5,000-foot stretch of cave that the boys would need to cross.
“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, according to the Guardian.
The boys are aged 11-16 and their coach is 25. However, not all of them can swim and some areas of the cave network where they disappeared after going exploring following a soccer game on June 23 are still flooded all the way to the ceiling.
They could get out by diving, although officials and Thai navy SEALs in charge of rescue effort plans are concerned that the boys’ lack of experience wearing diving masks and breathing under water could put them in danger.
“This morning, I have asked for 13 sets of (diving) equipment to be prepared and checked the equipment lists and placed them inside (the cave) in case we have to bring them out in this condition with less than 100% readiness,” Narongsak said.
While rescuers have started teaching the boys some basic skills, experienced divers are wary of taking boys out through the cave’s dark and dangerous waters.
“Nobody will teach anyone a full cave course, but trying to get them comfortable with masks, with the breathing, (is) completely different,” said Claus Rasmusen, a certified cave diving instructor based in Thailand who has been helping Thai SEAL team.
Yet officials are hoping an upgraded draining effort can lower water levels in the cave so the boys could keep their heads above water and not need scuba gear.
They are currently marooned on a small, muddy ledge deep inside the cave.
Heavy rain is expected to start by Saturday, which will almost certainly raise water levels in the cave, making passage in some areas more difficult if not impossible.
Authorities are still exploring other options, such as scouring the mountainside for other ways into the cave and finding faster ways to pump out the water.
Some cave rescue experts have said it could be safest to simply supply the boys where they are for now, and wait for the water to go down. But that could take months. Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts through October.
Authorities said the boys, who appeared skinny but in good health in several videos released by the Thai navy, were being looked after by seven members of the Thai SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave.
Thai officials have indicated that heavy rains forecast for this weekend could force them to decide the boys should swim and dive out using the same complicated route of narrow passageways through which their rescuers entered.
Tesla and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk tweeted that he would be “happy to help” if he could.
Musk responded to a tweet asking if he could assist in getting the boys and their coach out of the cave, writing: “I suspect that the Thai govt has this under control, but I’m happy to help if there is a way to do so.”