A rescue mission for a young Thai soccer team and their coach trapped in a flooded cave can expect its best chance yet of success in the next three or four days, its leader said on Saturday.
But rescuers were also waging a “war with water and time” before expected heavy rains, said Chiang Rai Acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn. Authorities were waiting for two big groups of volunteer divers to arrive later Saturday and Sunday, after which they’ll be ready to begin the operation of bringing them out, he said.
Osatanakorn’s cautious message of hope came a day after the death of a Thai rescue diver, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as a celebration of one of the boys’ birthdays at the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
The death of Saman Gunan on Friday underscored the risks of making the underwater journey. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was a volunteer and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the route to where the boys and others are sheltered, said Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew, Thai SEAL commander.
The boys, 11 to 16, and their coach went exploring in the cave after a soccer game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days. The only way to reach them was by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents and in oxygen-depleted air.
For the first time since they were found, the boys on Friday communicated by letter with their relatives — many camped outside the cave’s entrance — with both homesickness and humour.
At the sprawling cave mouth, lines of frogmen and soldiers with torches could be seen emerging from the darkness, as
generators chugged and pumped water out from blue nylon pipes.
Dozens of Royal Thai Army soldiers rested on rocks outside the cave, with two of them saying they had been told by superiors that the rescue operation would likely begin Sunday or the day after.
Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy rain.
Rescuers were unable to extend a hose pumping air all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks.
Authorities tightened a security cordon, draping plastic sheets around the approach to the cave, further giving the sense that a rescue might be imminent.
This could not be independently corroborated by Reuters, but Narongsak told reporters earlier on Saturday that the next three to four days was “the best and most ideal time for the rescue operation.”
“The current situation, with the air and water levels and the boys’ health, is the best yet,” he added. “We’re still at war with water and time. The discovery … was just a small victory.”
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted on Saturday that he had heard “some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand,” and that an “escape pod” and inflatable tube he was developing might be used to help get the boys out.
He gave no details.
Several monks in orange robes sat at a small shrine with two golden deer statues near the cave mouth, chanting, as a middle-aged woman knelt and prayed before them.
An assistant told Reuters the ceremony was to “open up” the cave mouth to allow for an easy and safe return for the boys.
Diver ‘double positive’ about mission
Ivan Katadzic, a Danish diving instructor who has been ferrying compressed air tanks into the cave, said after a dive on Friday he was “double positive” about the mission because the water level had dropped considerably.
Katadzic has not dived the final kilometre to where the boys are stranded on a muddy bank, the most dangerous part of the dive, during which rescuers have to hold their compressed air tanks in front of them to squeeze through submerged holes.
Alternative rescue plans include stocking the cave with supplies and an air line to keep the boys alive for months until Thailand’s monsoon season ends, or drilling a shaft down from the forest above.
Narongsak said the drills would have to pierce 600 metres of fragile limestone rock to reach the boys and rescuers were discussing drilling angles.
Besides looking for possible holes from above, the team on the hill above is trying to block holes and divert streams that
channel water into the cave before the weather turns.
“Everything is a race against time,” said Kamolchai Kotcha, an official of the forest park where the cave complex is located. His team would camp out on the hill to try and finish its work before the rain came, he said.
Growing international interest in the rescue has spurred help from countries including Australia, Britain, China, Japan and the United States.
“It’s only natural for us to offer our help,” Meir Schlomo, Israel’s ambassador to Thailand, told Reuters at the scene.
In the first letter from the team that was sent out of the cave through divers, Ekapol Chanthawong, the 25-year-old coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, wrote: “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.”
The boys on the team wrote messages of hope.
One, by a boy identified as Tun, said: “Mom and dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love.” The name reference could be of a waiting relative.
The rest of the scribbled letters on pages from a notebook struck similar messages for parents and urged them not to worry.
One boy named Mick wrote: “Don’t be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, uncle, mom dad, and siblings I love you all. I’m happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all.”