Families of Thai children trapped in cave cling to hope

Thai military personnel carrying pipes to drain water from inside the flooded cave in northern Chiang Rai province, during the rescue operation yesterday. The underwater search had to be halted as water levels rose amid the relentless rainfall.
Thai military personnel carrying pipes to drain water from inside the flooded cave in northern Chiang Rai province, during the rescue operation yesterday. The underwater search had to be halted as water levels rose amid the relentless rainfall.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Relatives praying as they kept vigil near the flooded cave yesterday. The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their coach have been missing since last Saturday.
Relatives praying as they kept vigil near the flooded cave yesterday. The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their coach have been missing since last Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Heavy rain hampers search as relatives wait anxiously outside flooded cave in Chiang Rai

MAE SAI (Thailand) • For five days, Mr Thinnakorn Boonpiem has been waiting in the rain for news of his 12-year-old son trapped in a cave in northern Thailand, and for five days he has heard nothing.

His boy is one of 12 footballers, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who have been trapped in the flooded cave in northern Chiang Rai province where heavy rain has hampered the harrowing search.

Weeping relatives spend much of the day praying and have been joined by chanting monks and Christian well-wishers singing hymns and reading Bible passages.

"I am very worried," the 55-year-old father of Mongkol Boonpiem said at the mud-slicked site close to the Laos and Myanmar borders.

Mr Thinnakorn said his son is a "good boy" who loves to study - almost as much as he likes football.

He joined the local "Boar" youth team a year ago and last Saturday went for football practice like he has done many times before.

He did not tell his dad he planned to go trekking in the cave, and his family started to worry when he did not come home.

"I learnt that he was trapped at around 9pm that day. Since then I've been here in front of the cave," the grim-faced father-of-two said.

Heavy rain overnight yesterday flooded a chamber of the 10km-long Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand where 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach were believed to be trapped, as rescue teams scoured the cave for signs of the missing. A h
Heavy rain overnight yesterday flooded a chamber of the 10km-long Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand where 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach were believed to be trapped, as rescue teams scoured the cave for signs of the missing. A handout picture from the Royal Thai Navy showed a navy official checking the depth of the water inside the cave in Chiang Rai province before the search operation was halted due to the incessant rain. Officials said they planned to drill a shaft into the cave today and had dispatched drones to find an ideal site for that. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Three British divers and United States military personnel have been deployed to the scene to help hundreds of Thai Navy divers, soldiers, border guards and police in the daunting search for the boys.

Yesterday, the underwater search was halted as water levels rose amid relentless rainfall.

"Under the current situation, it's not possible to dive into the cave, they have to wait until the water recedes," Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told reporters.

"We are preparing to continue pumping the water out so the team can enter the cave," he added.

But search teams continued work above ground despite the setback, scouring the area for entry points to the cave.

The 10km cave is one of Thailand's longest, and has a notorious reputation for being one of the toughest to navigate, especially in the monsoon season from July to November.

But the adventurous young team knew the cave well and had visited many times before. Some of their teammates had even surveyed the site on previous visits, officials said.

Search teams found signs of the team when they entered the cave: their backpacks were near the entrance, along with their football boots.

Farther in, rescuers found footprints and handprints believed to belong to the missing 13.

The search has captivated Thailand, where local media has been dominated by blanket coverage of the rescue.

A kitchen was set up in the forest park where the cave was located to feed the rescue workers under the order of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, after food donations pouring in from across the country were found to hamper rescue work.

"We do not need donations of food now. We would like many head torches instead," Ms Natcha Wangchaiyen, a Chiang Rai local administrative official, told The Straits Times.

A government spokesman said Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha would visit the site this morning.

"He wants to offer moral support to parents of the missing boys and the coach and all the officials working there," Mr Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

• Additional reporting by Jitsiree Thongnoi

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2018, with the headline 'Families of Thai children trapped in cave cling to hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe