CHIANG RAI • Thai rescue workers will drill a narrow shaft into a cave where 12 schoolboys and their football coach are believed to be trapped by flood waters, Thailand's Interior Minister said yesterday, the fourth day of a search that has been hampered by heavy rain.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach went missing last Saturday after football practice, when they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex, which runs 10km under a mountain in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
The cave is known to be prone to flooding in the rainy season from July to November.
Thai volunteers and military teams, including 45 navy Seal unit members, have been deployed at the flooded cave complex.
"Tomorrow, we can drill into the mountain, but we won't drill too deep. Just enough to allow people through," Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda told reporters in Bangkok. "We are trying every way to find the children," he added.
Rescue workers pumped water out, but the persistent heavy rain and limited oxygen inside the cave have slowed their progress.
"Water is the biggest challenge. There is a lot of debris and sand that gets stuck while pumping," Army Sergeant Kresada Wanaphum told Reuters. "We have to switch out units because there is not enough air in there," he added, before heading back down the cave.
According to messages the boys exchanged before setting off, they had taken flashlights and some food. Apart from some footprints and marks left by their muddy hands near the cave entrance, nothing has been seen or heard of them since Saturday evening, and the race to find them has dominated Thai news cycles.
"I'm confident all are still alive," Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters.
Chanting monks prayed alongside distraught relatives outside the cave yesterday.
Mr Vern Unsworth, a British cave explorer based in Chiang Rai who has joined the search, said a lot of water was seeping into the cave. "There is a watershed inside, which is unusual; it means there is water coming in from two directions," he told Reuters.
Three foreign divers coming from Britain were expected to reach Thailand yesterday evening to join the search, Mr Anupong said. Thailand has also asked the United States for survivor detection equipment, said Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat.
Mr Nopparat Kantawong, the head coach of the team, who did not attend practice last Saturday, said the boys had visited the caves several times, and was hopeful that they would stick together and stay strong. "They won't abandon each other," he told reporters.