Family members are praying to the safe return of their children, who disappeared on June 23 with their football coach. Picture: AFP Photo/Lillian Suwanrumpha
Family members are praying to the safe return of their children, who disappeared on June 23 with their football coach. Picture: AFP Photo/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Downpour threatens boys’ Thai cave rescue

HEAVY rain is falling as the mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a Thai cave gets underway. And there's no turning back now.

Within the next few hours, the boys will be strapped to a diver, given oxygen and told to hold on for dear life as they pass through a flooded cave system that's already claimed one life.

The boys - cold, malnourished and exhausted - will have to swim large sections of the 3km underground maze and squeeze through choke points, some no bigger than 30cm.

The timing for the torrential rain to set in could not be worse. At the media centre not far from the entrance to the cave, the weather has turned.

"The torrential rain everyone has feared has arrived," News Corp correspondent Amanda Hodge tweeted shortly after 3pm local time (6pm AEST).

The mountain range above the cave, previously visible from a distance, was covered in storm clouds and impossible to see. It's now officially a race against time.

Speaking at a press conference, Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said the trapped boys were aware of efforts being made to rescue them.

"Now the 13, their health and their minds are ready and they all have knowledge of the mission. They're ready to go out," he said.

According to journalists on the scene, 13 foreign divers and five Thai divers entered the cave system at about 10am local time (1:00pm AEST) this morning. Australian forces are also on the ground helping out with the mission.

The soonest they could possibly be out is about midnight, AEST. How quickly they are moved out will depend on the conditions and water levels inside the cave. The boys will be brought out one by one, but operations "may stop and start depending on conditions," Mr Osottanakorn said.

Given the time it will take divers to get each boy out, the operation could take days.

"They can't take them all out at once for fear of a dangerous bottleneck situation," said CNN's Matt Rivers, who is on the scene.

Australian Federal Police and Defense Force personnel arrive near the cave entrance where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand. Picture: Sakchai LalitSource:AP
Australian Federal Police and Defense Force personnel arrive near the cave entrance where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand. Picture: Sakchai LalitSource:AP

Mr Osottanakorn would not say if the young boys would have to make the perilous journey by diving throughout the cave, telling reporters that while water levels remain low, most of the path out would be walkable.

An Australian doctor reportedly assessed the health of the boys last night and gave them all clear.

CNN's Matt Rivers said the forecast for monsoonal rains meant there might be no alternative but to try and get the boys out now. The situation had become more urgent over the last 24 hours due to oxygen levels dropping inside the cave. While rain has held off within the area, forecasts are calling for more to fall.

Mr Rivers noted green netting and barricades had been erected outside the cave entrance and that "it feels different here".

"Journalists are now being forced to leave the area and about a dozen additional ambulances have been brought in. This rescue attempt appears extremely imminent." he tweeted.

ABC news director Gavin Morris also stressed the urgency of the situation amid ominous weather reports.

"The weather has clearly turned .. the world is looking on anxiously," he tweeted.

Journalists were asked to leave the site this morning with a new media centre set up 3km away. Thai authorities confirmed the decision was made so that a rescue operation can take place.

It will be a nervous wait until the boys emerge early tomorrow morning. Without a reliable source of communication we may not know if the operation has been a success until the divers re-emerge.

British, US and Australian divers have reportedly joined the Thai Navy as workers prepare for the rescue attempt. Among them is Adelaide anaethetist and diving expert Dr Richard Harris.

CONDITIONS 'PERFECT' FOR RESCUE

CONDITIONS are "perfect" to rescue the cave-trapped Thai soccer team, a rescue official has said.

"Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect (for evacuation) in terms of the water, the weather and the boys' health," rescue operation chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said.

"We have to make a clear decision on what we can do."

He said authorities are waiting for two big groups of volunteer divers to arrive later today, after which they'll be ready to begin the operation of bringing them out.

He says: "The plan that I've held on to from the beginning is that we have to bring the kids out and the determining factor of this plan is to have as little water as possible."

He said floodwaters have been drained as much as possible, "but if it rains and adds to it again, we don't know what other risk factors we will have to face."

He also warned about higher carbon dioxide levels in the cave.

Conditions are “perfect” to rescue the cave-trapped Thai soccer team, a rescue official has said.
Conditions are “perfect” to rescue the cave-trapped Thai soccer team, a rescue official has said.

The young soccer coach who has been trapped for two weeks inside a partially flooded Thai cave with his team of 12 boys has apologised to the parents of the boys in a scrawled note released by the Thai Navy.

"To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care," Ekapol Chanthawong wrote. "I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologise to the parents."

A total of seven pages were posted on the Thai Navy SEALs Facebook page, with messages apparently from each of the boys - aged 11 to 16 - and their 25-year-old coach.

Their brief notes express gratitude, love as well as dreams of food. "I want to eat pan-fried pork," one of the boys writes.

"Don't worry, everyone is strong", one letter read. "When we get out of here, we want to eat many things. We want to go home as soon as possible," adds the message.

The group has been trapped more than 4km inside the cave in northern Thailand since June 23.

The boys will likely be evacuated alongside experienced scuba divers in what is being called a "buddy dive".

It is understood that the schoolboys and their coach will be guided out of the 4km cave tunnel, one-on-one with a Navy SEAL diver.

The buddy system would allow the skilled divers to closely monitor their partner and ensure their safety.

It has been reported by ABC News in the US that the plan to rescue the boys could be launched this weekend. It also reported that Thailand's prime minister was due to be briefed on the proposal Saturday morning, local time.

If approved, the plan would role out in two stages. The first stage involves staging equipment, air tanks and clearing obstacles in the cave.

The second phase involves the "buddy dive" and could start as early as Sunday morning local time, ABC News reports.

Thai divers would lead the mission but the rescue team includes divers and workers from the US, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe and Asia.

At a late night press conference, Chiang Rai province governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said there was "a plan in place" but he stressed the boys were not yet ready to attempt a dangerous dive to freedom.

He said the boys had not learned adequate diving skills in the few days since searchers reached the area where they are sheltering. He also said the boys had enough strength to walk but could not swim to safety.

Osottanakorn said the health of most of the boys had "improved to normal", and that divers were continuing to teach diving and breathing techniques.

When asked if a rescue attempt would be made overnight if it started to rain, he said: "No, the boys can't dive at this time."

There was great concern over the dwindling air supply as the level of oxygen in the cave where the boys are trapped dropped to 15 per cent. The usual level is around 21 per cent.

But an air line has been installed overnight to the cave where the group waits to be rescued.

 

The Thai schoolboys and their football coach have been trapped for nearly two weeks. Picture: Royal Thai Navy Facebook Page via AP
The Thai schoolboys and their football coach have been trapped for nearly two weeks. Picture: Royal Thai Navy Facebook Page via AP

 

Thai rescue cave graphic from news corp web pages
Thai rescue cave graphic from news corp web pages

 

The death of the military diver on Friday underscored the huge risks the boys face.

The diver's death brought heartache for rescuers and anxious relatives waiting outside the Tham Luang cave in the country's mountainous north - and raised serious doubts over the feasibility of attempting to bring a group of boys with no diving experience out through the cramped passageways filled with muddy water.

But rescue officials fear their options are running out given fresh monsoon rains are forecast for the coming days.

Thailand's Navy SEAL commander on Friday said rescuers may have little choice but to attempt the tricky extraction of the group, the first official admission that the 12 boys and their coach might not be able to wait out the monsoon underground.

"At first, we thought the children could stay for a long time … but now things have changed, we have a limited time," Apakorn Yookongkaew told reporters.

In an update in the early hours of Saturday morning, Osottanakorn said it was "not suitable" to make the boys dive to safety yet.

But he indicated that further downpours might force their hand and speed up attempts to extract them despite the dangers of carrying out such a gargantuan effort.

 

Two of the boys and the coach are said to be suffering with exhaustion from malnutrition.
Two of the boys and the coach are said to be suffering with exhaustion from malnutrition.

The 12 boys, who all play in a local football team called "Wild Boars", entered the cave with their coach on June 23 but were cut off by a sudden downpour.

They were found by British cave diving specialists nine days later, dishevelled and hungry but alive, on a ledge several kilometres inside the cave.

A daunting task now awaits both the boys - aged between 11 to 16 - and their rescuers.

A round trip to the boys and back is taking some of the world's most experienced cave divers up to 11 hours to complete, through cramped passageways and fast flowing muddy waters where visibility is highly restricted.

Many of the boys are unable to swim and none have any scuba experience.

 

The 37-year-old died while trying to help rescue the young football team.
The 37-year-old died while trying to help rescue the young football team.

 

Saman Kunan was a triathlete and ‘skilled and able diver’.
Saman Kunan was a triathlete and ‘skilled and able diver’.

 

Thai Navy SEALs and volunteers are desperately working to pump water out of the cave as fast as possible.
Thai Navy SEALs and volunteers are desperately working to pump water out of the cave as fast as possible.

TRAGIC DEATH

The sheer danger was made all the more apparent on Friday by the death of Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL diver, who ran out of oxygen while returning from the chamber where the boys are trapped.

He was part of a team trying to establish an air line to the chamber where the children are awaiting rescue and lay oxygen tanks along the route.

"We lost one man, but we still have faith to carry out our work," Navy SEAL commander Apakorn vowed.

Saman resigned from the Thai military in 2006 before working at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, according to a post on the Thai Navy SEALs Facebook page, which said he was a triathlete and a "skilled and able diver". Thai social media filled with tributes to the fallen hero.

Asked how the boys could make it out safely if an experienced diver could not, Apakorn said they would take more precautions with the children.

But experts say the dangers remain high.

"It's very risky (diving out). Think about it, a Navy SEAL just passed away last night, so how about a 12-year-old kid," said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli volunteer helping the rescue bid.

The accident marks the first major setback for the gargantuan effort, which has gripped Thailand as the nation holds its breath for their safe escape.

 

Diving cylinders are prepared at a makeshift camp at the entrance of Tham Luang Nang Non caves. Picture: Linh Pham/Getty Images
Diving cylinders are prepared at a makeshift camp at the entrance of Tham Luang Nang Non caves. Picture: Linh Pham/Getty Images

 

NEW FOOTAGE TELLS BLEAK STORY

New footage of the daunting conditions facing the group trapped in the flooded cave has been captured by British television network ITV.

Several rescuers can be seen struggling through dark, narrow passages. They can see where they are going only through headlights, and are moving through the flooded cave system holding a rope above them.

It shows the enormous task ahead for the boys, several of who are weak from not eating proper food for days.

 

TRAGIC LIFE OF THAI COACH

The young soccer coach trapped with the Thai schoolboys has cheated death before, aged 10, when a disease swept through his village, sparing only him.

Ekapol Chanthawong was the only member of his family who survived the epidemic which overcame his Northern Thailand home town in 2003.

The disease killed his seven-year-old brother, then his mother and ­father.

Until he was 12, Chanthawong was looked after by extended family but was a "sad and lonely" little boy, his aunt Umporn Sriwichai told The Australian newspaper.

Relatives decided to send the boy to a Buddhist temple to train to be a monk.

Chanthawong spent a decade at the temple, learning meditation and wearing a saffron robe.

He still returns to the temple to stay and meditate with other monks.

 

Some of the boys trapped with Ekapol Chanthawong have been playing in the team for years.
Some of the boys trapped with Ekapol Chanthawong have been playing in the team for years.

 

The monastery Ekapol Chanthawong lived in for 10 years taught him to be a ‘healthy, physically and mentally’ young man.
The monastery Ekapol Chanthawong lived in for 10 years taught him to be a ‘healthy, physically and mentally’ young man.

IS DRILLING INTO THE CAVE AN OPTION?

Rescuers have dug more than 100 holes, hoping to reach the cave by a direct route. There were 18 promising ones, the deepest at 400m, but Mr Narongsak said he was not sure if it would reach the boys, who are believed to be about 600m below the surface.

The BBC this morning reported that this strategy was not an option and the boys had to come out the way they came in.

Australian drilling expert Kelvin Brown, who was part of the 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped 700m below ground, told the ABC drilling could be useful, but it would come with risks.

"We knew what the formation was, we knew if there were faulted zones, the presence of aquafer," Mr Brown said.

"I'm not too sure all that information is actually at hand in this Thai scenario. But it's all possible, as was proven.

"It makes a bit more sense to me anyway, at least for the sake of safe access, to use a drill hole."

 

A group of rescuers lines up to enter Tham Luang Nang Non cave to continue the rescue operation. Picture: Linh Pham/Getty Images
A group of rescuers lines up to enter Tham Luang Nang Non cave to continue the rescue operation. Picture: Linh Pham/Getty Images

 

ELON MUSK HELPS RESCUE BOYS

Elon Musk has offered to help hone in on the boys' exact location. Representatives for the Tesla chief executive said they were in talks with Thai authorities about helping in the rescue.

Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) or Boring Company technology would pump water or provide heavy-duty battery packs known as Tesla Powerwalls but it's unclear whether Thai officials will accept the offer.

In recent days Musk has put forward possible ways his companies could help.

Last year, the Puerto Rico government asked Musk to help after a devastating hurricane hit, with Tesla sending Powerwalls and providing advice on rebuilding the Caribbean island's infrastructure.

Boring, Musk's tunnelling start-up, could potentially make available its massive drills or excavation expertise, but such an approach could be too dangerous for this mission.