The 12 boys trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand are being taught how to swim and dive to prepare them for the possibility that they need to dive their way out, as rescuers raced to pump water from the cave before heavy rain falls as forecast in the coming days.
"Now, we are teaching the children to swim and dive," Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters yesterday. If water levels fall and the flow weakens, the boys would be taken out of the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai quickly, he said.
"The water is very strong and space is narrow. Extracting the children takes a lot of people," he added.
A team of medical personnel and divers were by the side of the boys and their coach, who were found by divers on Monday night and have now been trapped for more than 10 days inside the cave.
The group consists of Dr Pak Loharnshoon, who had graduated from the navy Seals training course, a nurse from the Royal Thai Navy's underwater and hyperbaric medi-cine unit, and seven members of the Thai navy Seals.
A clip posted on the "ThaiSeal" Facebook page yesterday morning showed the group on a small mound inside the cave. Dr Pak was seen applying medicine to minor wounds on some of the boys.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, were able to communicate clearly with the group and seemed to be in good health. "Everyone can be relieved now, as all of them are in the good hands of seven navy Seals," said the Seals commander, Rear-Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaew.
"There will be constant food and medicine provided to the trapped footballers and a communication line to the outside world set up."
The boys would be taken out of the cave when they are mentally ready and physically fit for the potentially punishing journey of more than 4km to the mouth of the cave, the authorities said.
"All 13 don't have to come out at the same time. Who is ready first can go first," Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters yesterday.
"If there are risks, then we will not be extracting them."
According to experts, divers required three hours to reach the boys from the mouth of the cave, Reuters reported.
The boys and their 25-year-old coach went missing on June 23. It is believed they had entered the cave when it was dry, and sudden heavy rain blocked their exit.
They have been provided minerals, food, water and lighting. Their eyes have been in the dark for a long time and need to adjust to normal light.
An international team of rescuers, including six Specialist Response Group members of the Australian Federal Police, are helping in the rescue operation.
The United States Indo-Pacific Command has also deployed about 30 personnel in the past week.
Some local firms have also offered help. Mr Jenvit Chaiyarat, a marine manager at Mermaid Subsea Services, told The Straits Times: "We have come to see what equipment they need. We have been supplying some 2,000 lightsticks so far because they work well under unclear water."
He said the group would need equipment suitable for young and untrained divers.
"The main challenge for the boys in diving out would be getting a continuous supply of oxygen. I understand the cave dive is very difficult and there will be spots where divers need to be in single file because they are very narrow."
The focus is now on monitoring water levels, rain forecasts and extraction procedures.
As of late Tuesday, some 120 million litres of water had been pumped out of the cave.
While there is urgency to rescue the boys, deputy government spokesman Weerachon Sukondhapatipak has cautioned against being pressured to act faster.
"Some of them can't swim, therefore it will take time for them to adjust," Reuters quoted him as saying.