CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A dangerous mission to rescue 12 Thai schoolboys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave for more than two weeks began on Sunday and authorities said the first survivor may emerge in the evening.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit are trying to bring the boys – some as young as 11 and weak swimmers – through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and abroad, and getting the boys out safely could be a boost for Thailand’s ruling junta ahead of a general election next year.
“Today is D-Day,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission, told reporters. “At 10 a.m. today (0300 GMT) 13 foreign divers went in to extract the children along with five Thai navy SEALs”.
He said the first boys – who have spent 15 nights huddled on a muddy bank some 4 km (2.5 miles) inside the cave – could emerge around 9 p.m. local time (1400 GMT).
Bursts of heavy monsoon rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province on Sunday and storms were expected in the coming weeks, increasing the risks in what has been called a “war with water and time” to save the team.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with their 25-year-old coach after soccer practice on June 23, setting out on an adventure to explore the cave complex near the border with Myanmar and celebrate a boy’s birthday.
Rescuing them all could take three to four days and depended on the weather, an army commander involved in the mission said.
The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days, Narongsak said, and had managed to drain the water level in the cave considerably, but needed to move fast.
“If we wait and the rain comes in the next few days we will be tired again from pumping and our readiness would drop. If that’s the case, then we have to reassess the situation,” he said.
An Australian doctor who is part of the rescue mission checked the health of the boys on Saturday night and gave the all-clear for the operation to proceed.
Authorities have said it takes roughly 11 hours to do a round-trip from the cave entrance to where the boys were discovered by British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen on Monday.
Of the 13-strong foreign dive team – mainly from Europe – three will escort the children, while the remainder are positioned along the dangerous first kilometer stretch, where the boys will have to navigate through submerged passageways in some places no more than two feet (0.6 meter) wide.
A statement issued by the rescue operation said that at 2p.m., the 13 divers were in position for the extraction, although it was not clear if the children had begun diving.
The statement added: “due to the complex nature of the cave and the difficulty of the operation we cannot yet verify how many children are coming out in this first operation.”
MEDICAL TEAMS ANXIOUS
Thirteen medical teams stood ready outside the cave – each with its own helicopter and ambulance – one for each of 12 boys and their coach.
After an initial assessment at the site, the boys will be airlifted to a makeshift helipad close to the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, some 70 km away.
A source at the hospital said that five emergency response doctors were awaiting the party and a further 30 doctors were on stand-by, adding that everyone was feeling tense.
“The teams here are happy the boys are being rescued but also anxious about the severity of the boys’ conditions. We’re under a lot of pressure,” she said, declining to be named because she was not allowed to speak to the media.
The area outside the hospital was cordoned off with police patrolling the area, said a Reuters reporter at the scene. Down the street, a loud speaker told vendors to “keep off the road” and to “not obstruct the transfer mission”.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the military junta that seized power in 2014, planned to visit the cave site on Monday, a government spokesman said.
His visit with relatives and rescue officials last week was criticized by some Thais as opportunistic as his government faced pro-democracy protests in the capital Bangkok in recent months.
“For the people who are currently bringing the 13…out of the Tham Luang cave, he (Prayuth) wishes safety and success,” government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said.
While the main rescue effort is underway, officials continued to explore other options to extract the team.
Rescuers have drilled multiple holes in the hills above the cave complex, but have so far not been able to find a safe way through the fragile limestone rock to the boys some 600 meters below.
A team from a company owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk with drilling and exploration expertise was expected to reach the cave site on Sunday, Thailand’s defense ministry said.
Musk said on Twitter a team from his rocket company SpaceX in Los Angeles was building a “tiny kid-size submarine” to help with the rescue, although gave a timeline that suggests it would not arrive in Thailand until Monday at the earliest.
(For a graphic on cave rescue: Hope for the 13, click tmsnrt.rs/2KR2zRj)
Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and James Pomfret; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Alex Richardson