No rescue imminent from Thai cave, authorities say

Monsoon rains could seal 12 boys and soccer coach inside cave complex for months

An ex-Thai navy SEAL lost consciousness and died while working on the rescue operation to save a group of young boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave where oxygen levels are falling. Video: Reuters

Thai authorities have said that 12 boys stranded inside a cave will not be imminently rescued – less than a day before the expected arrival of monsoon rains that could seal them inside for months.

Narongsak Osatanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province, said rescuers were striving to free the boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, before it rained but would do so only if there was "minimum risk" to their lives.

“If we face the heavy rain, we must bring the kids out,” he told a midnight press briefing on Friday. “But if the situation is stable [inside their chamber], we can let them stay.” He said the boys’ parents had written their sons letters which had been delivered 3.2km inside the cave, where the group has been sheltering on a high ledge for two weeks. Plans to shepherd the boys out of the jagged, narrow and muddy cave were put on hold based on the latest information from divers, he said.

Thai military bring water pumps during the ongoing rescue operation for the child soccer team and their assistant coach at Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Just reaching the 12 boys and their coach required a six-hour underground journey that is gruelling and treacherous even for the most experienced cave divers: swimming in pitch blackness and vicious currents, squeezing through two-foot-wide passages and climbing over boulders several stories high. One veteran diver, a former Thai navy Seal, lost consciousness and died early on Friday after placing spare tanks of air along the route. His body was sent to Bangkok and a royal-sponsored funeral was held for him on Friday.



Meanwhile, oxygen is starting to run low in the remote cavern where the children have taken refuge. Three of those in the cavern are reported by authorities to be weakening, and despite a round-the-clock pumping operation, the threat remains that monsoon rains could push water levels in their precarious refuge even higher.

The initial euphoria in Thailand and around the world that all 13 people had been found alive has given way four days later to deep anxiety over the challenge of getting them out. The option of waiting months until seasonal floodwaters recede now seems less promising, but the practical problems of ferrying 12 children and one adult safely through a nearly three-mile maze of perils remain daunting, all the more so since none of the children is said to be able to swim, much less use diving gear.

“When we found the boys, we thought that the boys would be able to survive in there for a long time,” Thai navy Seal commander Rear Adm Arpakorn Yookongkaew said. “But now, things have changed. We have limited time. We have to work hard.”

The oxygen level in the boys’ cavern is about 15 per cent and decreasing, he said, which is cause for concern: below 16 per cent can cause hypoxia, which in extreme cases can be fatal. Normal levels are about 21 per cent. So the rescue effort has grown more urgent. On Thursday evening, rescuers began running a hose towards the cavern in hopes of pumping in more air, in addition to carrying in air tanks for future use, as the diver who perished, Saman Gunan (38), had been doing.

“We are afraid of the weather and the [lack of] oxygen in the cave but we have to try to set the plan and find which plan is best,” Osatanakorn said. The boys, aged 11 to 16, were practising breathing in scuba masks but were not yet ready to make the journey through the cave, which has been significantly drained but some stretches still require breathing equipment to traverse.

“The boys are not suitable [and] cannot dive at this time,” he said. “The kids can walk and play inside,” he added.

Intense monsoon showers are expected to hit on Saturday and will undo days of work to drain the cave system. The rescue operation has succeeded in clearing at least 130 million litres of water from the cave but it is unclear how much more needs to be removed before authorities will risk removing them.

The race against time has drawn global attention - including from Fifa, which on Friday extended an invitation to the boys to attend the World Cup final should they be released. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk also said on Friday he was sending employees from his companies SpaceX and Boring to see if they could aid the Thai-led international effort. – Guardian/New York Times