A former Thai navy SEAL working to save a young soccer team trapped in a cave died from a lack of oxygen in an overnight mission, officials said Friday morning.
SEAL commander Arpakorn Yookongkaew told reporters the volunteer rescuer was working to replace oxygen canisters.
Earlier Thursday, rescue workers suffered a setback in their race to drain water from the flooded cave and extract the team when volunteers inadvertently pumped water back into the cave.
Operation commander Narongsak Osatanakorn said overzealous volunteers working on their own arrived on site and began pumping water into the ground, forcing it back into the partially flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand.
“They may have some belief that their techniques are effective for groundwater drainage, but anything that is not in the plan must be discussed with us first,” Narongsak told Thai media. “We are racing against water (that is) flowing into the cave although we have plugged its channels.”
The volunteers were corrected, and Poonsak Woongsatngiem, an official from Thailand’s interior ministry, told the Guardian that the water had been reduced by 40 percent in the past few days, clearing a 1-mile stretch of cave the boys would need to cross. The boys are about 2.5 miles from the cave entrance.
Communications are also a concern as rescue workers consider extrication options in advance of monsoon rains forecast for Saturday. Authorities have not yet been able to connect a phone line, and a round trip through the winding, waterlogged tunnels between the boys and a rudimentary cave command post that now has a phone takes more than six hours.
Narongsak said the boys and their coach were in weak but otherwise stable condition and good health when found late Monday. “What we worry about most is the weather,” Narongsak told reporters. “We can’t risk having the flood back into the cave.”
Ideally, the water level would be lowered to no higher than the boys’ waists, so they could walk out wearing life vests without needing to don scuba gear for what would be an extremely dangerous trip.
The boys are 11-16 years old 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.
“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 percent readiness,” Narongsak said.
While rescue workers 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.
The boys and their coach 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, including 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.
The boys have drawn international attention, and the U.S. and more than half-dozen other nations are aiding the rescue.
Contributing: Jane Onyanga-Omara; The Associated Press