Five left to save in flooded Thai cave

Four more members of youth football team rescued on Monday, leaving divers to plan extraction of the remaining four boys and their coach

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Eight of the 12 boys trapped for two weeks in a flooded cave in northern Thailand are now safe and recovering in hospital after another four were rescued by divers on the second day of a high-stakes operation.

The boys brought out of the dark, winding cave on Monday are "safe and conscious", said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the acting governor of Chiang Rai province who is in charge of the rescue effort.

Monday's operation began at 11am (llocal time) and took nine hours, two fewer than on Sunday, with rescuers helped by their experience from the first day, Mr Narongsak told a news conference, punctuated by rounds of applause.

"We have more operating personnel. And we have more expertise than yesterday," he said.

But rescuing the remaining five people, which includes the boys' 25-year-old soccer coach, could take more than one operation, Mr Narongsak said.

The urgent and dangerous effort has involved the boys diving through the cave's tight and twisting passages, guided by experienced divers.

The Facebook page of the Thai Navy Seals, who have been central to the rescue operation, was updated on Monday night to say "two days, eight boars" — a reference to the "Wild Boars", the name of the boys' soccer team. The message, like most posted by the Seals, ended with the fighting cheer adopted from the US Navy: Hooyah.

Authorities have been rushing to extract the boys, ranging in age from 11 to 16, and their coach from the cave as the annual monsoon bears down on the mountainous region in far northern Chiang Rai province. Workers have been labouring around the clock to pump water out of the cave.  However, heavy downpours overnight did not raise water levels inside, authorities said on Monday.

Mr Narongsak said the four boys rescued on Sunday were in good spirits.

"This morning they said they were hungry and wanted to eat khao pad grapao," he said, referring to a Thai dish of meat fried with chili and basil and served over rice.

The four are still undergoing medical checks in a hospital in Chiang Rai city, the provincial capital, and were not yet allowed close contact with relatives due to fear of infections. Relatives were able to see them through a glass partition, Mr Narongsak said.

The boys and their coach went exploring in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system on June 23 after a soccer practice but were cut off when a rainstorm flooded the cave. A massive international search operation was launched and it took 10 days to locate the boys, who had taken shelter on a dry slope deep in the complex.

The search and rescue operation has riveted people both in Thailand and internationally, with journalists from across the globe travelling to the town along the border with Myanmar to report on the ordeal.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the cave to inspect the operation on Monday, with navy rescuers giving him a rousing cheer.

Authorities have said extracting the entire team from the cave could take up to four days, but two straight days of success raised hopes that it could be done faster.

Monday's mission involved 18 divers from Thailand and abroad.

Mr Narongsak said rescuers were planning for the next day's operation. "We believe that we can do even better and it will be a 100 per cent success," he said.

He said it was not decided whether all five people still in the cave would be rescued on Tuesday. "It depends on the plan. We have set the plan for four people so if they want to take five out [at the same time], then they need to change the plan."

The perilous rescues have involved two divers accompanying each of the boys, all of whom have been learning to dive only since July 2, when searchers found them.


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Cave rescue experts have said they consider an underwater escape to be a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving.

The death on Friday of a former Thai Navy Seal underscored the risks. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working in a volunteer capacity and died on a mission to place air canisters along the passage to where the boys are, necessary for divers to safely travel the five- to six-hour route.

There were several concerns that prompted authorities to move forward with the plan to get the boys out. One was that it was unknown how safe and dry the area where they had taken shelter would stay as Thailand's rainy season, which lasts until late October, picks up pace.

The other, and perhaps more worrying factor, was that oxygen levels in the complex were falling close to dangerous levels.