Rescuers yesterday raced against time to pump water from a cave in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand as the forecast of bad weather threatened to complicate efforts to free a group of young footballers stranded in the flooded cavern.
As the rescue mission entered the second phase of extricating the 12 youngsters and their coach from the deep area of Tham Luang cave, about 4km from its entrance, food and medical supplies were dispatched to the group to sustain them while plans were being worked out.
In a video clip released by the Thai authorities on Monday night of the dramatic moment when they were found, the boys, aged 11 to 16, showed no sign of injuries as they sat on a small mud mound in darkness.
Dr Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai's health department, told The Straits Times that a plan has been put in place to safeguard and preserve the health of the boys. "Even though the boys look fine in the video clip, we are concerned because the distance from where they are to the cave entrance is long."
The 12 boys, members of the Moo Paa (Wild Boars) Academy football team, and their 25-year-old coach went missing after training on June 23, when they set out to explore the caves in the forest park.
They were found on Monday night in "good condition", Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osoththanakorn told a news conference after two British divers, Mr Richard Stanton and Mr John Volanthen, who had flown in to Thailand to take part in the rescue operation last week, located them.
News of the miraculous find sparked jubilation in a nation gripped by the harrowing drama, with news websites and social media users celebrating the discovery and hailing the rescuers as heroes.
FIRST CONVERSATION BETWEEN BRITISH DIVERS AND TRAPPED THAI BOYS
A video clip of the first encounter between two British divers and the trapped Thai football team was posted on the official Facebook page of the Thai Navy Seals yesterday.
It shows the 12 dishevelled and emaciated boys and their football coach sheltering on a slope in the pitch-black belly of a flooded cave as the British divers shine a torchlight on them.
Here is what they said:
Diver: Raise your hands.
Boy: Thank you.
Diver: How many of you?
Diver: Thirteen? Brilliant.
Boy: Yeah, yeah. We going today?
Diver: No, not today. Just two of us. We have to dive. We are coming. It is okay. Many people are coming. Many, many people. We are the first.
Boy: What day?
Diver 1: Tomorrow.
Diver 2: No, what day is it?
Diver: Monday... You have been here for 10 days. You are very strong. Very strong.
Boy 1 (in Thai): Who knows English, translate for us.
Boy 2 (in Thai): Can't catch up with the words.
Diver: We'll come.
Boy: We are hungry.
Diver: I know, I know. I understand. We'll come.
Boy 1 (in Thai): They will take our photos first.
Boy 2 (in Thai): Tell them we are hungry.
Boy 1 (in Thai): I have told them. They know.
Boy: What day you come to help me?
Diver: Tomorrow, we'll help tomorrow. The Navy Seals will come tomorrow. With the food, the doctor and everything. Today, a light? You have a light. We'll give you more light.
Boy: I am very happy.
Diver: We are happy too.
Boy: Thank you so much.
Boy: Where do you come from?
Diver: England, UK.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Even though the boys look fine in the video clip, we are concerned because the distance from where they are to the cave entrance is long.
DR TOSSATHEP BOONTHONG, chief of Chiang Rai's health department.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said: "Thank you, all Thais, thank you, all foreigners, everybody is a hero and everybody helped each other."
As the Thai authorities worked on methods to bring the group out, the options included waiting until water levels subside, or teaching the group to use diving gear to navigate the flooded cave.
"If it rains too much, water levels will rise and make getting them out harder," Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda told reporters.
Divers were seen yesterday pumping air into oxygen tanks which some officials said were to be placed at every kilometre inside the cave for the boys to use on their dive out of the cave. They will also need extensive diving training and equipment suitable for non-professional and juvenile divers.
Each boy is expected to be accompanied by two divers on the way out, local media reported.
Mr Supanat Thitigan, a rescue diver from the Thai Ruamkatanyu Foundation, said that one problem was securing full-face diving masks of the right size for the boys as the authorities had only adult ones.
It is not certain when the final rescue effort will take place. The media initially reported on the possibility that the boys might have to wait out the rainy season, which lasts three to four months, before officials said they were racing against time.
An international team of rescuers, including six Specialist Response Group members of the Australian Federal Police, are helping in the efforts to bring the boys out of the cave.
Mr Passakorn Boonyalak, Chiang Rai's Deputy Governor, told a news conference yesterday that the stronger boys were expected to be taken out first, and the others had to wait until they were ready and strong enough.
He also said a telephone line was being installed for parents to talk to their stranded children.
Q How did they survive nine days without food?
A Experts say humans can survive without food for between 30 and 45 days if they still drink water.
As the boys and their coach went to the cave after football practice, it is unlikely they would have had much, if any, food with them.
But given how long they survived and the condition in which they were found, experts say it is certain they had drinkable water, whether from within the cave or brought with them. Dr Sura Jeetwatee, a doctor who is part of the operations, said the boys were able to walk and had survived by staying where they were and drinking water that dripped from stalactite formations.
Q How long will it take to rescue the boys?
A Thailand's Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda said yesterday that a rescue attempt will be made over the next day or so before a fresh downpour of monsoon rain. "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," he said.
However, Mr Passakorn Boonyarat, Deputy Governor of Chiang Rai Province, refused to speculate on how long the boys might be trapped. He explained that there were enough provisions for four months, but anyone fit and able to leave the cave would be evacuated as soon as possible.
It could be risky for the boys to dive out under muddy, unclear water. Cave diving is already very risky, especially for young boys in a weakened state. None of the boys, aged between 11 and 16, can swim or dive.
The journey takes a healthy - and skilled - navy Seal diver about six hours. Walking out would be the safest option, but at the moment it is impossible because parts of the route remain flooded.
Q Why can't rescuers just drill through the cave?
A Of the evacuation options, drilling to reach the boys is the least viable as getting the necessary drilling equipment to the mountain atop the cave is daunting and the process time-consuming.
Explorers have spent days scouring the mountain top for possible alternative openings. They have found a few promising leads and have tried to drill deeper. But there is no indication that any of those chimneys connect to the chamber where the boys have been stranded.
Again, the boys need to spend time getting stronger in the depths of the cave before they can attempt to climb up a second entry - if one is found - or be lifted out.
Q What happens if it rains heavily again?
A Besides geographical obstacles, rescue workers are up against pouring rain that continues to flood the cave faster than water can be pumped out.
Rain continued to fall in Chiang Rai and was forecast to intensify from today, pushing the authorities to double their efforts to reduce water levels in the cave and try to get the boys out sooner. "If it rains too much, water levels will rise and make getting them out harder," Mr Paochinda told reporters.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES