Four Thai boys have been freed from cave – but rest remain trapped as dramatic rescue is paused

The official heading the operation said it was going better than expected but added that the healthier boys were being taken out first

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 7:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2018, 10:57am

Rescuers have freed four boys who were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for more than two weeks, but have had to pause the operation, leaving eight other boys and their 25-year-old coach underground.

The fourth boy left Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province shortly before 8pm local time on Sunday, the Thai navy Seals Facebook page announced.

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Efforts to rescue the others – who will then have to wind 2.5 miles (4 kilometres) through pitch darkness, trudge through thick mud, clamber over slippery jagged rocks and dive through narrow passageways swirling with cold, strong currents – will resume on Monday morning.

But the complex nature of the mission and the 11-hour round trip to the boys means it could take four days before all are free. “It’s dangerous to the most experienced divers to go through,” said one diver. “It’s pretty scary.”

Local media and military sources earlier said that five boys had left the cave and a sixth boy was about to emerge or may already have done so, but a correction was later issued to four boys.

At about 9pm local time, the official heading the rescue said the next phase of the operation would start in 10 to 20 hours. The boys are aged between 11 and 16.

The first two boys emerged about nightfall from the Tham Luang cave complex after navigating a treacherous escape route of 2.5 miles (more than four kilometres) through twisting, narrow and jagged passageways.

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They were followed shortly afterwards by two others, leading to an explosion of jubilation on social media in Thailand and around the world as the rescued boys were rushed to hospital.

The boys emerged separately from the cave network in Chiang Rai province, each accompanied by rescue divers, according to the military and local reports.

The boys were driven in ambulances to waiting helicopters which flew them to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital.

One of the first boys to emerge from the labyrinthine cave was Mongkol Boonpiem, 13, according to sources.

“The operation went much better than expected,” said Chiang Rai provinc’s acting governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, adding that the healthier boys were being taken out first.

The entire operation to rescue all 13 could last two-to-four days, depending on weather and water conditions, said army Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakam.

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The first long section from where the boys have been huddling in darkness, which is over half a mile and almost one kilometre in length, is believed to be the most difficult.

It requires a long dive and crawling through mud and debris, with some crevices barely wide enough for a person.

“The hole is really small, I have to take off my air tank to crawl through it,” a 25-year-old Thai Navy Seal, who declined to be named, said before the rescue attempt. “As I do, I feel the edges of the hole on both my back and chest.”

Once past that stretch, the boys’ escape route forks east at a T-junction, with a tiny passageway close by that authorities say is the most dangerous element of the journey.

It is a sliver of space 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometres) from the shelf where the boys have been sheltering above the waters.

They must then scrabble over diverse terrain including giant boulders, sand and slippery rocks with sudden cliff-like drops and further submerged passageways.

The water in the cave is also muddy and unclear, with one diver comparing it to a cafe latte. Ropes have been installed to help guide the boys through the darkness.

An underground operations centre has been set up in the so-called “cavern 3”, after which there is a second journey of 1.2 miles (1.9km) to reach the mouth of the cave.

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Authorities have said it takes roughly 11 hours to do a round-trip from the cave entrance to where the boys are huddled on a muddy bank.

This tallies with previous estimates from officials that it would take the divers five hours to reach the ledge where the team is trapped, and six hours for the journey out.

The rescue team leader said that, in some of the larger caverns, extensive pumping had reduced water levels so that they were now walkable, even with the onset of fresh monsoon rain on Sunday.

Falling oxygen levels, and with many of the boys not able to swim well, present further risks should they panic as they are guided slowly through the pitch-black waters.

“It’s very dark inside even with the spotlight,” a former veteran SEAL, who had been recalled for this mission, said.

“Most of the time we work with our instinct, in some position, alone in silence and in the dark.”

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Dubbed “D-day” by the rescue team leader, the divers entered the wide cave mouth on Sunday morning to begin extracting the boys, accompanied by a whole contingent of emergency workers.

One cave explorer who has been inside the Tham Luang cave complex described it a “labyrinth”, adding it was much more difficult to navigate than any other he had experienced.

The mission was launched on Sunday because floodwaters inside the cave were at their lowest level in days, and rains that are forecast to hit the region risk flooding the cave again.

Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission, said 13 foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy Seal unit have been tasked with bringing the boys – some of whom are weak swimmers – through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.

Narongsak said two divers would escort each of the boys out of the cave.

The British Cave Rescue Council, which has sent seven divers to assist in the rescue, said the death of the ex-avy Seal was a reminder of the risks.

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“This demonstrates in stark terms, the dangers associated with the cave environment, especially those characterised by long sections of passage with deep water or those entirely filled with water,” the association wrote on its website.

The members of the “Wild Boars” team went missing with their 25-year-old coach after soccer practice on June 23.

They had set out on an adventure to explore the cave complex, reportedly for a picnic to celebrate one of their birthdays, before being trapped by rising waters from bursts of monsoon rain.

They have been stuck in a cramped chamber several miles inside the Tham Luang cave complex since then.

The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days, said Narongsak, and they had to move now.

The boys’ plight has transfixed Thailand and the rest of the world.

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Initial euphoria over finding them alive quickly turned into deep anxiety as rescuers raced to find a way to get them out, with Narongsak at one point dubbing the effort “Mission Impossible”.

An Australian doctor who was part of Sunday’s rescue mission checked the health of the boys on Saturday night and gave the all clear for the rescue to proceed.

Authorities had looked at many different ways to save the boys and their coach.

One early potential plan was to leave them there for months until the monsoon season ended and the floods subsided completely, but that idea was scrapped over concerns about falling oxygen levels and waters rising too high.

More than 100 exploratory holes were also bored – some shallow, but the longest 400 metres deep – into the mountainside in an attempt to open a second evacuation route and avoid forcing the boys into the dangerous dive.

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American technology entrepreneur Elon Musk even deployed engineers from his private space exploration firm SpaceX and Boring Co. to help.

Meanwhile rescuers fed a kilometres-long air pipe into the cave to restore oxygen levels in the chamber where the team was sheltering with medics and divers.

Reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press and Kyodo