Thai Navy SEAL dies while working on rescue effort of soccer team in cave

The fatality raises fears that a rescue mission could be fraught and even deadly for the boys.

The body of Saman Gunan, a former Thai navy SEAL who died during an overnight mission, is carried during a repatriation and religious rites ceremony at Chiang Rai Airport in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand Friday, July 6, 2018. The Thai navy diver working as part of the effort to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave died Friday from lack of oxygen, underscoring risks of extracting the team. (AP Photo)

Mae Sai, Thailand • A member of the Thai navy team attempting to rescue a group of young boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave fell unconscious from a lack of oxygen and later died in hospital, officials said Friday.

Speaking at a press conference, a commander of the Thai navy SEAL group said the retired navy SEAL was placing oxygen tanks along an exit route to assist the boys in their escape from the cave when his own oxygen ran out. He was found unconscious around 1 a.m. Friday and transferred to a hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.

The fatality raises fears that a rescue mission could be fraught and even deadly for the boys, who have been trapped for nearly two weeks.

The diver was identified as Saman Kunam. Officials did not specify his age.

“This mission is really scary and dangerous,” Pasakorn Boonyalak, deputy governor of Chiang Rai province, said at the press conference.

The diver was about half a mile from where the 12 young soccer players and their coach have been trapped since June 23, when rains flooded the vast and complex cave system they were exploring in northern Thailand. The group was found Monday after a dramatic search and rescue that gripped the world, but authorities have warned that getting them out will be a fraught and difficult process, especially since none of them can swim and could panic if they had to dive out, with potentially deadly consequences.

Officials said Thursday evening that three of the boys are in poor health.

Authorities say that they remain undeterred by the death of the rescue diver, and will continue the rescue mission as planned. Water levels continue to fall in the cave, but heavy rain is forecast for as soon as Friday afternoon, breaking a relatively dry spell in recent days.

The priority, Pasakorn and army officials say, is getting oxygen to the boys as it slowly runs out. Four navy SEALS are stationed with the boys to monitor their health, provide food to them and check on oxygen levels.