CHIANG RAI: Twelve boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded Thai cave for at least nine days were “found safe” late Monday (Jul 2), in a miracle rescue after days of painstaking searching by specialist divers through muddy waters and winding tunnels.
Divers from a Thai Navy Seal unit reached a chamber containing an elevated rock mound, nicknamed “Pattaya Beach” by cavers, which could have provided the boys with a refuge when rains flooded the cave, blocking the way out.
“Thai Navy Seals have found all 13 with signs of life,” Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters, who broke into spontaneous applause and started cheering.
“We will take care of them until they can move,” he said, adding that the 13 were now being looked after.
“We will bring food to them and a doctor who can dive. I am not sure they can eat as they have not eaten for a while.”
Narongsak also said that the situation was being assessed and more rescue teams were going into the cave complex.
Dramatic footage was released early on Tuesday of an emaciated and bedraggled Thai youth football team crammed onto a wedge of dry ground surrounded by water deep inside a cave that has held them captive for nine days.
The group, mostly seated and with baggy football shirts pulled over their knees, asked for food and to leave the cave immediately, according to the video shared on the official Facebook page of the Thai Navy SEALS.
In the video a diver, speaking with a British accent, urges the group to stay calm and says “many, many people are coming … we are the first”.
Divers took advantage of a brief window of good weather on Monday to edge further into the cave, with the water levels dropping slowly but steadily every hour thanks to round-the-clock pumping.
They had hoped to find the “Wild Boar” team on the “Pattaya Beach” ledge, but the boys had retreated 300-400 metres further as the ledge was submerged, Narongsak added.
“About the missing of 13 persons – from the latest report from the SEAL unit who went in and passed the junction and a moment ago they managed to reach ‘Pattaya Beach’. But apparently the Pattaya Beach is flooded. Then they went deeper about 300 to 400 metres further. It is another high ground. We found our younger brothers are safe.”
NEVER GAVE UP HOPE
The team’s travails are not over with a complex operation predicted to try to free the ailing group from the cave – which is still partially submerged.
“There are still a lot of risks. If they go in without enough air to breath or the tunnel closes down, there is still a risk. We need to do more preparation. We will go in if there is 90 per cent confidence,” Narongsak said.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach disappeared on Jun 23 during an outing to the Tham Luang cave, which runs for 10km beneath the mountains in northern Chiang Rai province.
There had been no contact with the boys or coach since they entered the cave as they were hemmed in by heavy rains that blocked the entrance.
Rescuers found their bicycles, football boots and backpacks near the cave’s entrance and discovered handprints and footprints further in.
An international search effort, which included United States forces and British divers, had gone on since the group went missing inside the Tham Luang cave.
Rescuers’ round-the-clock search for the team was beset by torrential downpours that submerged tunnels near the entrance, blocking divers from going in.
The race to save the boys has dominated news bulletins, gripping the nation, and relatives of the missing children have kept up a long vigil at the mouth of the cave.
Loved ones, friends and teachers of the “Wild Boar” football team refused to give up hope of seeing the young players again, holding an increasingly desperate vigil at the cave entrance.
Overjoyed relatives who had clustered near the cave hugged and smiled as news of the miracle rescue filtered back.
Tinnakorn Boonpiem, whose 12-year-old son Mongkol is among the 13, reacted with joy.
“I’m so glad… I want to him to be physically and mentally fit. I am afraid he will be mentally affected by this incident.”
“I found out from the television… I’m so happy I can’t put it into words,” another relative of one of the group told television reporters with tears of joy streaming down his cheeks.
Medical teams were seen preparing first aid kits after news of the group’s discovery broke outside the cave’s entrance.
It remains unclear whether any of the group are injured or in need of medical attention.