Rescue of Thai youth soccer team trapped in cave could take months, warn officials

(Tham Luang Rescue Operation Center | The Associated Press) In this handout photo released by Tham Luang Rescue Operation Center, Thai rescue teams walk inside cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, Monday, July 2, 2018. Rescue divers are advancing in the main passageway inside the flooded cave in northern Thailand where the boys and their coach have been missing more than a week.

Singapore • The rescue of 12 members of a boys’ soccer team and their coach in northern Thailand could take months, the Thai navy said Tuesday, as officials weigh the best extraction options after a dramatic nine-day rescue mission.

Thai authorities are committed to “100 percent safety” in extracting the boys and their coach from a partially flooded network of caves, Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said Tuesday morning, according to the Associated Press. Options include coaching the boys on how to use special breathing masks, or draining water from the cave. None of the boys can swim, or dive.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach, went missing on June 23. They were exploring a cave complex in a forest park in northern Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar. Local and international rescuers, including a team of Thai navy divers and cave experts, had spent days trying to locate the team, but muddy waters complicated efforts and blocked access to the chambers of the cave complex. The search for the boys gripped the nation and the world, and ended Monday evening when two British divers found the team hiding on a dry patch in one of the flooded chambers.

In a video posted by the Thai navy on its Facebook page, the boys are seen huddled on a rock in mud-stained T-shirts and shorts surrounded by water.

“How many of you are there - 13? Brilliant,” a member of the rescue team, speaking in English, tells the boys. “You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”

When one of the boys asks if they could leave the cave, the rescuers replied that they could not yet, but that many people were coming for them.

“NAVY SEAL will come tomorrow, with food and doctors and everything,” the rescuer said.

The Thai military has confirmed that they are preparing for long-term food supplies and diving training for the group. Waters in the cave must recede to safe levels before the boys can be safely extracted, experts say. Engineers have been pumping water out of the cave, but more precipitation is expected as the rainy season hits the area.

Officials say they have performed an informal medical evaluation, and determined that most of the boys are in stable condition. No one has any critical injuries, said Chiang Rai’s governor.

The British Cave Rescue Council, a voluntary underground rescue operation, has been in touch with the British divers who located the boys. In an interview with the BBC, the council’s vice chairman Bill Whitehouse said the divers described the dive as “gnarly.”

There were “complications and problems,” said Whitehouse, “They were having to swim against the currents and pull themselves along the walls. The visibility wouldn’t have been very good.”

The dive took about three hours, he added. The cave system is at least four miles long, and waters can reach depths of 16 feet during the monsoon season which lasts through October.