THAI schoolboys found alive in flooded caves may have to make the heartbreaking decision to leave pals behind as they are rescued “in stages”.
Chiang Rai provincial governor Narongsak Osatanakor says “all 13 may not come out at the same time.”
We revealed yesterday how the boys have been handed diving masks and may be told to swim for it as water rises around them.
Rescuers’ top plan is to remove the trapped lads, aged between 11 and 16, by guiding them underwater through the 1.2mile network – despite none of them being swimmers or able to use oxygen equipment.
The navy today raised the possibility that the 13 could be in the Tham Luang cave until the flood waters recede in four months.
Gov. Osatanakorn said the 12 boys and their coach have been practising with masks but have not yet attempted any practice dives.
He said it is unknown when the rescue could be attempted, but it is unlikely to be today as “it has to be 100 per cent safe”.
Seven divers, including a doctor and a nurse, joined the group inside the Tham Luang caves in northern Thailand.
New video footage of the boys has emerged which shows them laughing, saying their names and confirming that they are healthy.
The 12 boys and their coach are seen sitting with Thai navy SEALs in the dark cave with their visibly skinny faces illuminated by the beam of a flashlight.
The boys, many wrapped in foil warming blankets, take turns introducing themselves, folding their hands together in a traditional greeting.
The video, which lasts around a minute, was recorded sometime Tuesday.
What we know so far
- The football team made up of 12 boys aged between 11 and 16 and their coach ran into trouble on 23 June.
- They were visiting the cave network in Chiang Rai when monsoon rains trapped them deep inside it.
- The coach, Ekapol “Aek” Chanthawong , 25, could yet face prosecution as it emerged the boys were taken into the cave as part of a local initiation rite.
- They were found safe on Monday night by British divers, who discovered them huddled together on a ledge about 1.2miles inside the network.
- They are all in reasonable health – one diver said they were “very weak, but alive”.
- The military is sending in provisions to last them up to four months while they assess rescue options.
- One option includes teaching the kids to dive, but this is be highly dangerous as none of the boys can even swim.
- The children have been given masks to practice breathing but are yet to attempt any dives
- The safest option is for them to walk out but this is impossible due to floodwater blocking sections of the route.
- Explorers are also traversing the mountaintops looking for alternative entrances which could be drilled open.
- New video footage has emerged of the boys showing them laughing and appearing in good health
But Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said evacuating the lads “must speed up” as soon as possible – before more rain falls and exacerbates the flooding.
He said the boys would be probably brought out via the same complicated route through which their rescuers entered.
Having them dug out of the cave is also being considered but it’s feared if this is botched it could cause the cavern where the team has taken refuge to cave in.
Draining the caves enough to allow the boys to wade or float out with life vests is another option.
It emerged today the Thai boys visited the cave to attempt a local initiation rite in which they had to scrawl their names on a wall at the end of the tunnel.
Footage emerged yesterday of two Brit rescue divers finding the terrified boys cowering in a darkened chamber inside the caves.
The group appeared exhausted, rake thin and sensitive to the light, with some speaking faltering English to try to communicate with their saviours.
IN IT TOGETHER Two doctors volunteer to stay with trapped Thai schoolkids for FOUR MONTHS in flooded cave as treacherous operation begins to get them life-saving supplies
TWO doctors have volunteered to stay with the trapped Thai schoolboys in the flooded cave for MONTHS as the treacherous operation to save them gets under way.
Heavy rains forecast for northern Thailand could worsen the flooding where the 12 boys and their soccer coach are waiting to be saved by rescuers.
And cave rescue experts have said it could be safer to simply supply them where they are for now, rather than trying to have the boys dive out.
That could take months given that Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts through October.
Cave diver Ben Reymenants, part of the team assisting the rescue effort, told NBC the easiest option would be to “keep pumping the water out of the cave. They need another 3 or 4 feet so they can literally float them out with life jackets”.
“But time is not on their side,” he noted, because of the heavy rain forecast.
He added that two Thai navy doctors have volunteered to stay with them for months, if needed.
The British Cave Rescue Council, which has members taking part in the operation , said in a statement that “although water levels have dropped, the diving conditions remain difficult and any attempt to dive the boys and their coach out will not be taken lightly because there are significant technical challenges and risks to consider.”
Joining the British are other experts from around the world and teams from the U.S., Australia, China and elsewhere.
Authorities said efforts would continue outside the cave, where teams have been scouring the mountainside for other entrances to the caverns. Several fissures have been found and teams have explored some, although so far, none lead to the trapped boys.
The group is currently being looked after by seven members of the Thai navy SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave.
Ben Raymenants, who was 1,300ft behind the British divers when they were found, told Sky News: “They had no food. They left their backpacks and their shoes before wading in there, trying to go the end of the tunnel like an initiation for local young boys to go to the end of the tunnel and write your name on the wall and then make it back.
“A flash flood because of sudden heavy rain locked them in, with no shoes and no food. They had just one flash light which obviously ran out.”
Thai authorities have refused to rule out the possibility of charging the 25-year-old coach, Ekapol “Aek” Chanthawong, who took the boys into the cave.
Family members of those trapped say the team often went on adventuring trips together.
Meanwhile, experts say getting the boys out via the same tunnel route is fraught with difficulty.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS?
None of the boys can swim, while diving requires extreme mental fortitude, and panicking when swimming – often in pitch black conditions – is deadly.
As they have all been in the dark for 10 days, the team must first all eat to regain strength and would wear sunglasses to protect their eyes as they exit the cave.
Bill Whitehouse, from the British Cave Rescue Council which is helping with the rescue, said the diving option was “certainly not easy”.
He explained: “There’s space to make your way through, but it is 50/50 underwater over 1.5km. That’s still a lot of diving and it’s possible it will need a lot of equipment.”
He told BBC Radio 4: “The other alternative is that you literally bring them out in packages. In other words you fit them with diving equipment: a full face mask, instead of having a gag in your mouth like a lot of divers use; package them up; put the correct weights on them so that they are neutrally buoyant and are not going to get stuck again.”
Edd Sorenson, from Florida for the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery Organisation, advised against trying to get the kids out by diving.
He told the BBC: “That is extremely dangerous and hazardous, and I would consider that an absolute last resort.
“Having somebody in zero visibility that’s not familiar with … that kind of extreme conditions, it’s real easy and very likely that they would panic, and either kill themselves and or the rescuers.”
HOW WOULD THE RESCUE WORK?
The evacuation would see each boy taught to use dive equipment then escorted by pairs of divers – like a relay – through the cave network.
Local media report some sections of the cave are so narrow the youngsters would have to travel through them alone – all while avoiding any panic.
Other sections of floodwaters are so muddy that their rescuers reported being unable to see and had to feel their way through.
Experts say the kids would have to been taken out one-by-one – because if one ran into difficulty this would cause a blockage and risk the lives of the kids behind him.
They are now being sent their first meals of rice and pork – packaged in sealed portions – after having already been given protein and energy gels.
Rescuers this morning also appealed for the donation of 15 small full-face masks. These, unlike an expert diver’s loose mouthpiece, are safer to use for breathing underwater because they are firmly secured.
WHAT ELSE MUST BE DONE?
The country’s military is now providing the boys with enough food and medical supplies to last at least four months.
They have been given energy gels to sustain them while a plan is worked out, but rescuers say right now they are “too weak to climb” and “unable to swim”.
Getting them correctly fed is now crucial to any rescue attempt – people deprived of food can suffer heart failure if not reintroduced to food correctly – and they are all lacking energy.
Other options to save include waiting for the monsoon season to end and having the group walk out, or trying to drill a rescue tunnel from above to airlift them.
However, Ben, from Belgium, told BBC Newsnight: “Time is not on our side – we’re expecting heavy rain in three days.
“If the cave system would flood it would make the access impossible to the kids.”
Rescuers have been consistently trying to pump water out of the cave network since the boys became trapped. Five days ago they punched a hole into the side of the mountain in a desperate, but ultimately fruitless, attempt to drain it.
The group’s health was assessed overnight by medical teams and they were found to have sustained light injuries, but all were in good general health.
The boys and their football coach were found late on Monday night on an elevated rock some 1.2miles deep inside the cave.
A video shot by their Brit rescuers in flickering torchlight revealed boys clad in shorts and red and blue shirts sitting or standing on the rock above an expanse of water.
A member of the multinational rescue team, speaking in English, can be heard telling the boys: “How many of you are there – 13? Brilliant.
“You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”
One of the boys replies: “Thank you.”
Another asks when they will get out of the cave, to which the rescuer answers: “Not today. You have to dive.”
Brits John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were first to reach the boys, having had strong experience in cave rescues, according to Bill Whitehouse, of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC).
HERO BRITS WHO FOUND BOYS
Two British divers have “spearheaded” the discovery of the 12 boys and their football coach and were the first to reach the group.
Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, along with a third Briton, Robert Harper, joined the “huge” search operation after the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) was contacted by Thai authorities seeking expert help.
Stanton, in his 50s, is a fireman from Coventry who helped to rescue Britons trapped in a cave in Mexico in 2004, according to reports.
He is regarded as one of the world’s leading cave rescue experts, and was made an MBE at the end of 2012.
Divernet described him as “arguably the main face of British cave diving” and he has told the publication he regards diving as “my hobby” and undertakes it completely voluntarily.
Mr Volanthen, an IT consultant in his 40s, who is based in Bristol, reportedly set a world record for the longest dive from the surface of water in a team with Mr Stanton in 2011.
He said in an interview with the Sunday Times magazine in 2013 that caving requires a cool head and that “panic and adrenaline are great in certain situations but not in cave-diving”.
As reported, they flew out along with Robert Harper, who also took part, and are from Derbyshire Cave Rescue.
They found the group along with a team of Thai Navy SEAL divers.
When asked by one of the bewildered boys about where they came from, one of them replied: “England, the UK.”
Rescuers had been focusing on an elevated mound, which cavers have named Pattaya Beach, in the cave complex’s third chamber, knowing that it could have provided the boys with a refuge when rains flooded the cave.
Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said: “The SEALs reported that … they reached Pattaya Beach which was flooded.
“So they went 400 metres further where we found the 13 … who were safe.”
The boys survival was greeted with jubilation nationwide by Thais who have followed every twist of the harrowing story.
Relatives of the boys, who have been at a shelter near the cave hoping for a breakthrough, were seen cheering, smiling and receiving calls after being given the news.
Rescuers shook hands and congratulated each other as occasional cheers broke out.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha thanked the international experts and rescuers for their “tremendous efforts”.
A statement from his office read: “The Royal Thai Government and the Thai people are grateful for this support and co-operation, and we all wish the team a safe and speedy recovery.”
A leading American cave rescue expert says many challenges lay ahead for the rescue divers.
Anmar Mirza, the US National Cave Rescue Commission coordinator, says the primary decision is now one of whether to try to evacuate them or to provide essential supplies until conditions improve.
Mr Mirza said: “Supplying them on site may face challenges depending on how difficult the dives are.
“Trying to take non-divers through a cave is one of the most dangerous situations possible, even if the dives are relatively easy.”
He added that “if the dives are difficult then supply will be difficult, but the risk of trying to dive them out is also exponentially greater”.
The boys went missing with their 25-year-old coach after football practice on June 23 after they set out to explore the cave near Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar.
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