Nation & World

Thai rescuers still struggle for plan to extract soccer team trapped in flooded cave

Military personnel are seen in front of the Tham Luang cave, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Military personnel are seen in front of the Tham Luang cave, where 12 boys and their soccer coach are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

MAE SAI, Thailand - Thai officials were still trying Friday to work out an extraction plan for the young soccer team and their coach trapped for nearly two weeks in a water-filled cave, stoking fears that all available options remain too risky.

Officials said they were rethinking strategies after a diver died while trying to set air tanks along a route through the vast cavern complex. By late Friday, they had still failed to agree to a rescue method and acknowledged that all remain risky and imperfect.

“We are trying to set a plan,” said Chiang Rai governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn. “If the risk is minimum to get them out, then, maybe, we will try.”

Saturday will mark two weeks since the dozen young teammates and their coach became stranded deep in the cave after flash floods from heavy rains blocked their exit - and now pose huge challenges for a growing team of rescuers from around the world.

In a possible new bid to avoid the waters, engineers working for entrepreneur Elon Musk will be dispatched to Thailand. In a series of tweets, Musk said his tunneling firm Boring Co. and others will look for potential ways to reach the underground chamber in northern Thailand.

Drilling into the cave and extracting the boys from above has also been suggested, but Narongsak, speaking at a news conference, said only 18 of the 100 holes they have located are potentially viable.

He compared the situation to the 2010 mine rescue in Chile that took 69 days to get the miners to the surface. Narongsak pointed out that any drilling process could take months.

“We are trying to rule out the impossible,” he said.

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The boys, he added, “cannot dive at this time” and are not ready to make the almost six-hour journey out of the cave. At the same time, officials remain desperately concerned about the weather, with heavy rains forecast within days that could flood the cave once again and render their efforts to pump water out futile.

“We would like to take the minimum risk possible,” he said. “But we can’t wait for the rain.”

The governor’s midnight news conference, held just as a drizzle started to fall over the muddy, chaotic rescue site, underscored how there is still no good option to free the boys and their coach after they were found alive on Monday night.

Guiding the boys out through a dive has been raised as the most likely possibility, but a retired Thai Navy SEAL preparing the boys for their dive by placing compressed air tanks around the cave ran out of oxygen himself early Friday morning and died shortly after.

Speaking at a news conference, a commander of the Thai navy SEAL group said the retired navy SEAL was placing compressed air tanks along an exit route to assist the boys in their escape from the cave when his own oxygen ran out. He was found unconscious about 1 a.m. Friday. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was later transferred to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

“It is sad news,” Pasakorn Boonyalak, deputy governor of Chiang Rai province, said at the news conference. “His job was to deliver oxygen, but he did not have enough on his way back.”

The fatality, the first of the rescue mission, raises fears that a rescue mission could be fraught and even deadly for the boys.

The diver was identified as Saman Kunam, a 38-year-old retired Navy officer. His body has been transported to a naval base in central Thailand, and then on to his family in the northeastern part of the country.

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“This mission is really scary and dangerous,” Pasakorn said. But, “we will have to continue our mission as planned.”

The diver was about half a mile from where the 12 young soccer players and their coach have been trapped since June 23.

Officials said Thursday evening that three of the boys are in poor health, weaker than their other teammates. It is unclear if a rescue effort would prioritize those three for an evacuation.

Thai navy officials say they are undeterred by the death of the rescue diver, and will continue the mission as planned. Speaking to The Washington Post, Thai SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew said that divers would take more precautions with the boys to prevent injuries or fatalities. Officials say that water levels continue to fall in the cave, and that their priority is getting oxygen lines to the section of the cave where the boys are camped out as it slowly runs out.

, and against the rains. Light rains on Friday morning broke a relatively dry spell around the rescue site, and more rain is forecast in coming days. there for weeks, if not months.

Four navy SEALs are stationed with the boys to monitor their health, provide food to them and check on oxygen levels. They have provided the boys with high-protein ready meals, similar to army rations that the officers themselves eat. Authorities, too, are continuing to look for other ways out for the boys - including drilling through the cave so they can be extracted without making the perilous five-hour dive all the way to the cave’s entrance through pitch-black, muddy waters.

The Navy SEAL commander raised the possibility that the boys’ hideout spot, on a muddy patch above the water, may not stay dry for long, as heavy monsoon rains could flood the cave again.

“The situation is changing all the time,” said Apakorn, the SEAL commander. “We still have to wait and see what happens next, and whether the water level will rise again.”

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