Rescuers in northern Thailand on Tuesday raced against time and an ominous monsoon season to extricate a youth soccer team trapped in partially flooded cave ahead of heavy rains forecast later this week.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said some of the players can’t swim, further complicating the arduous task of a rescue. He said the kids, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach might need to don scuba gear for parts of their escape.
The Thai rainy season is peaking, and long periods of persistent downpours can be expected into November. Water levels in the cave complex are expected to rise.
“The evacuation must speed up,” Anupong told the Bangkok Post. “Diving gear will be used. If the water rises, the task will be difficult. We must bring the kids out before then.”
The team would have to move through narrow parts of the cave by themselves. Massive pumps are flushing some of the water out of the cave, reducing the amount of time the dive equipment would be necessary, Anupong said.
“Diving is not easy. Those who have never done it will find it difficult, because there are narrow passages in the cave,” Anupong said. “They must be able to use diving gear. If the gear is lost at any moment, it can be dangerous to life.”
The team ventured into the cave after soccer practice on June 23. A team of British and Thai divers, backed by an international rescue group found the children and their coach Monday.
Video released early Tuesday showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting on a dry area inside the cave above the water, their faces illuminated by a spotlight. The video, along with pictures taken by rescuers, buoyed the spirits of families awaiting reunions at the cave’s main entrance.
Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said most of the boys are considered to be in stable condition. None were considered critical, he said.
Anupong said Thai Navy SEALs, including medical experts, are caring for the group. Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital said it prepared a ward where all 13 could be cared for, with accommodation for 54 relatives.
At one point authorities considered supplying them with months of food to wait out the rainy season. But Anupong said the latest plan is to free the team as soon as possible.
The team is located on a raised area of a watery cave about a half-mile from the surface, more than a mile from the main entrance to the complex network of tunnels that make up the Tham Luang caves in northern Thailand.
The desperate search drew worldwide attention, and hundreds of rescuers worked around the clock combating heavy rains and flooding that slowed the effort. Massive pumps cleared water out of sections of cave, allowing rescuers to drill deep into a network of tunnels.
Last week, the U.S. Pacific Command sent a 30-person rescue team to northern Thailand to aid the desperate search, which began when a mother reported her son had not returned from practice.
Teams from Britain, China, Australia and other countries joined the effort. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued a statement of thanks to “all international units that have come to assist the Thai authorities in rescuing the youth football team. … The Royal Thai Government and the Thai people are grateful for this support and cooperation, and we all wish the team a safe and speedy recovery.”
Contributing: The Associated Press