Monsoon rains may force urgent Thai cave rescue attempt this week – but boys can’t swim and ‘can barely stand’
Seven Thai Navy Seals, including a doctor, have set up camp with the boys, who face a long and treacherous dive through darkened caves to reach the surface
Thai authorities are now racing against the clock to rescue 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a cave, saying they may be forced to attempt to evacuate the group before a fresh round of monsoon rains expected this week.
The group had been missing since finishing football practice on 23 June and were found alive late on Monday after a nine-day search.
There is now a team of seven Thai Navy Seals with the group on the small mud shelf where they found refuge from rising waters, including a doctor and a nurse, according to the Seals commander, Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew.
Rescuers are currently weighing up rescue options. At present, the only way out of their refuge is by diving through the flooded caves, but the route is extremely challenging and none of the boys can even swim, much less scuba dive.
If a dive rescue is not possible, they face a wait of months underground until monsoon rains end and the water recedes. The wet season typically lasts from May to October in northern Thailand, where the Tham Luang cave is located on the borders of Myanmar and Laos.
Two Thai medics volunteered to stay with the group until they can leave, one of the cave divers helping with rescue efforts said.
For now, all 13 are healthy and being looked after by the medics. “They have given the boys food, starting from easily digested and high-powered food with enough minerals,” Associated Press quoted the Seal commander saying.
His team is considering rescue options, but would not attempt to have them dive out without doing more checks and a dummy run. “[We] have to be certain that it will work and have to have a drill to make that it’s 100 per cent safe.”
The group is between 800 metres and 1km below the surface, and about 2km inside the cave.
The navy Seal team on site had earlier sent out a request for donations of small full-face diving masks after it was found that the masks they had were too big for the children, fuelling speculation that a rescue attempt was imminent. A full-face mask is easier to use for inexperienced divers.
But one of the rescuers who found the group said after days without eating or moving, they may not be ready for a dive rescue, even with extensive support.
“They are mentally quite fit, better than anticipated. They are very weak though. They did not have any solid food for 10 days, just drinking water dripping from the walls,” Ben Raymenants told Sky News.
“First the boys need to get their strength again, because right now they can’t do anything at all. They have muscle atrophy, they can barely stand up. So they are feeding them slowly to get back their strength.”
Thai officials have been giving out mixed messages about the urgency of a rescue attempt. Although Arpakorn said the group were safe for now, other officials are calling for a speedy evacuation before monsoon rains set in again.
“As rain is forecast in the next few days, the evacuation must speed up. Diving gear will be used. If the water rises, the task will be difficult. We must bring the kids out before then,” said Anupong Paojinda, the interior minister, according to Bang kok Post.
“Diving is not easy. Those who have never done it will find it difficult, because there are narrow passages in the cave. They must be able to use diving gear. If the gear is lost at any moment, it can be dangerous to life.”
Workers have delivered energy gels to the group in an attempt to boost their strength and are preparing more substantial meals of pork and rice, to be delivered in sealed containers.
Rescue experts have suggested the safest option would be to supply the children and their coach with food and medical supplies and wait for the water level to subside, which could take weeks or even months, but the expected heavy rainfall could complicate the equation.
Even evacuating the boys using diving gear could take up to five to seven days. Experienced divers have said missteps underwater with untrained divers could be fatal for the boys and the rescuers.
“The best option is to leave them where they are and stabilise their environment to make sure the core ingredients are met,” said Peter Wolf, the national director of the Cave Divers Association of Australia. “Given the environment is pretty wet, to keep them warm and dry, provide them with clean drinking water, food, and clean air.”
Rescue workers were scouring the hills above the cave network for other possible entry points or avenues to drill down to the trapped footballers, but the small size of the cave where they have found refuge could make that dangerous.
The decision about when and how any rescue attempt is made lies ultimately with the Thai military. The Thai navy captain Anand Surawan has previously said: “We will prepare to send additional food to be sustained for at least four months and train all 13 to dive while continuing to drain the water.”
An underground headquarters has been set up, stocked with dive gear, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and food, which will be transported to the boys and their coach.
Two British divers – named on social media as Rick Stanton and John Volanthen – found the team on a mud bank inside the cave about two metres above the water level.
It is thought the 12 boys and their coach entered the cave on 23 June, before a sudden monsoon flooded the network.
Thai police are investigating whether the coach should face criminal charges for leading the boys into the cave, Sky News reported. Warning signs discourage visits to the cave during the rainy season. Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand’s longest and toughest to navigate, with snaking chambers and narrow passageways.
The Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, held a telephone conference to congratulate the rescuers at the cave site.
Engineers have been pumping water out of the cave for a week and a temporary respite from the rains has lowered water levels. By Tuesday, they were removing 10,000 litres of water an hour, lowering the water level by a centimetre an hour, but coming monsoon rains could quickly erase that progress. Officials were installing telephone lines to allow the children to speak to their parents.
More than 1,000 Thai military personnel are at the site, as well as teams from seven countries including the UK, US and Australia.