Hidden cave entrances in Thailand offer new hope for rescue of 12 trapped children, their football coach

Thai rescue workers and park officials rest outside the Tham Luang-Khunnam Nang Non cave, as the authorities search for 12 football players and their coach who have gone missing and are believed to be trapped in the cave in Chiang Rai province.
Thai rescue workers and park officials rest outside the Tham Luang-Khunnam Nang Non cave, as the authorities search for 12 football players and their coach who have gone missing and are believed to be trapped in the cave in Chiang Rai province.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Search teams, guided by information from local residents, are seeking ceiling entrances to a cave in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district, where a group of 12 teenagers and their football coach went missing at the weekend.

The 12 young footballers and their 25-year-old coach of a local team, the Mu Pa Academy Mae Sai, are thought to have entered the cave, but could not exit as a flash flood blocked their way out.

Colonel Rangsiman Songkrautham, a border patrol police commander, said they were told by locals that there were two ceiling passages leading into the cave.

"We will check the information by dispatching teams to survey the area on foot and by helicopter. If confirmed, it would boost our chances of finding the missing group," he said.

Search teams could descend into the cave from entrances, he said, adding to rescue efforts that until now have required diving into water from the cave entrance.

The search teams comprising Army, police and Navy Seal units on Monday (June 25) worked day and night to find the group who entered Tham Luang-Khunnam Nang Non cave in the forest park of the same name on Saturday afternoon.

The authorities were alerted during the weekend by a mother of one of the players, who said her son had not come home.


Family members and relatives praying at the entrance of the Tham Luang cave while rescue personnel search for missing members of the children's football team and their coach, on June 26, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

His last message to her was that he was visiting the cave with his team and coach, she said.

Investigators found 11 bikes belonging to the missing footballers at the cave entrance.

Their families are waiting near the cave despite the heavy rain, holding on to the hope that their loved ones are safe.

Some have held religious rites there, praying for the children's safety. They are receiving regular updates on the situation from the rescue mission.

The authorities have warned others to stay away from the area so as not to obstruct the rescue work.

The Navy's Seal unit arrived at the site at 2.45am local time on Monday and was divided into four groups who took turns to dive into the cave.

They drilled holes into two separate halls inside the cave in a bid to locate the missing group, but found only footprints and handprints, which nevertheless raised hopes that the missing are still alive.

The Seals carried food and water in case they found the missing teens, who would be hungry after being trapped since the weekend.

On Sunday, other diving teams found slippers in the cave.

A rescue team has been pumping air into the cave to increase the available oxygen, while the authorities have minimised use of machines near the entrance to ensure that carbon monoxide does not seep into the cave.

Meanwhile, photos on the Facebook page of coach Ekkapon Chantawongse show the group previously visited the cave. The photos were date-stamped Dec 30, 2016, with a caption explaining the visit was part of pre-match preparations.

The photos suggest Ekkapon was close to his team, as they show him with the players on and off the field.

On Monday, divers had to work under muddy water up to five metres deep. The search was suspended at about 6pm on Monday due to the rising water level in the cave caused by heavy rain in the afternoon.