Rescuers prepare Thai cave boys for tricky evacuation

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Thailand cave rescue operation

Rescue teams are mulling their options for evacuating a team of young soccer players from a cave in Thailand. Faced with the threat of more flooding, the team is getting a crash course on how to "swim and dive."

Thai navy SEALs and rescue teams on Thursday continued to give crash courses in diving and swimming to the group of trapped young soccer players, hoping for a swift end to their harrowing ordeal. But the challenges could prove too burdensome for the boys.

Nature and Environment | 04.07.2018

"We know from our own rescue team that got in there and found them that it's a serious dive," Gary Mitchell, assistant chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, told DW on Wednesday.

"It's a kilometer of flooded passages and round about an hour-and-a-half worth of diving that involves stopping and changing air tanks."

'Swim and dive'

Rescue divers on Tuesday found the 12 teenagers and their coach alive after they went missing in a Thai cave more than 10 days ago. But authorities said it was still unclear how long the boys would have to remain inside.

The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach entered the cave to celebrate a birthday. They became trapped when sudden rainfall flooded its entry on June 23. Similar incidents have befallen other visitors at the local tourist spot.

Karte Infografik Tham Luang Höhle Thailand EN

On Wednesday, Thai authorities provided food and medicine to the soccer group while experts assessed the conditions needed to evacuate them safely.

"The water is very strong and space is narrow. Extracting the children will take a lot of people," Prawit Wongsuwan, Thailand's deputy prime minister, told reporters.

"Now we are teaching the children to swim and dive," he said, adding that if water levels subside, the Wild Boar soccer team would be taken out easily.

Another option would be to drill a hole into the cave and airlift the boys out. But authorities say they prefer the diving option.

Installing an internet connection

The rescue workers are also working on installing an fiber optic cable to allow the trapped children to communicate with their parents and the outside world.

According to Ratdao Chantrapul, the mother of one of the boys, the divers had "tried to take in mobile phones but the bag they were in broke."

While authorities are mulling over timelines for extracting the football team, observers have already drawn comparisons with the 2010 extraction of 33 trapped Chilean miners. The Chilean group spent 69 days underground before the rescue teams finished installing a lift that brought them outside.

One of the Chilean miners, Mario Sepulveda, said he was trying to organize a trip to Thailand to help with the rescue effort for the Thai boys.

"Stay strong!" Sepulveda told the children in a 40-second video, adding he was willing to help however he could.

Separately, he told the AFP news agency he was trying to contact members of the Chilean government to get funds for the journey.

"I think it's important as a country for us to be there, after what we miners went through," he said.

Read more: Rescuers lower food, maps for missing children in Thai cave

'No risk' will be taken

In a video released on Wednesday, the soccer players said they were in good health. The boys and their coach are seen sitting with Thai navy SEALs in the dark cave with their emaciated faces visible in the one-minute video.

Rescuers said they would not put the boys' lives in danger and would take "no risk" to free them.

"All 13 don't have to come out at the same time," Narongsak Osottanakorn, governor of Chiang Rai province, told reporters on Wednesday. "Who is ready first can go first."

Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, a government spokesman, said more preparations are needed to rescue the boys.

"Some of them can't swim, so therefore it will take time for them to adjust," he said.

"Officials would teach them how to move, how to dive, how to move their body under those circumstances," he added.

Somboon Sompiangjai told Reuters news agency that his son Peerapat, 16, could swim. He said he was confident that SEALs would eventually get the boys out.

"I am not worried if the kids have to swim and dive," he said. "I felt much better after seeing the clips with the children in good spirits, even though they were in there for 10 days."

Read more: US, UK divers join search for kids' football team trapped in Thai cave

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Happy ending after harrowing ordeal

After deliberating over how best to rescue the boys and their coach - considering even whether to teach them how to dive, or wait for the monsoon waters to recede months later - rescue workers finally settled on pumping out as much water as possible, sedating those trapped and strapping them to a diver who shepherded them to safety.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Found alive after nine days

Rescue divers initially found the 12 young soccer players and their coach alive on July 3 after they went missing in a Thai cave 10 days earlier. Fighting against time, rain and low oxygen levels, rescuers managed to free the first four boys successfully on July 8. The rescuers faced a complicated and dangerous diving mission to free the rest of the team and their coach.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Glimpse of joy

Families of the teenage soccer players expressed their joy over the discovery of the boys nine days after they went missing. Outside the cave, the mother of one of the boys said she was "glad" for a glimpse of her son. "He's thinner," she said, as she ran her finger over the image of her son on a television screen.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Massive rescue efforts

Thai rescuers were assisted by an international team comprising experts from China, Australia, the USA and Britain. A video from the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page showed the group several kilometers inside the 10-kilometer (6-mile) cave network on a small wedge of dry ground. The boys moved 400 meters further in as the ledge had become covered by water.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Trapped by flooding

The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach entered the cave to celebrate one of the player's birthday. They became trapped in the cave, a local tourist spot where similar incidents have taken place in the past, when sudden rainfall flooded its entry on June 23. It was later reported that some of the boys could not swim, further complicating the rescue.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

A difficult mission

The rescue mission proved difficult for divers whose efforts were continually hampered by rising water that filled sections of the cave, often forcing them to stop. Getting trained divers into the cave was easier than getting untrained kids out.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Boys' safety paramount

The entire nation was glued to the media coverage of the rescue mission, and Thai authorities insisted they will not compromise on the safety of the trapped group. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (above, at right) thanked international experts who helped find the boys.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

First boys rescued

The first four boys were rescued by a team of 13 foreign diving experts and Thai Navy SEALS, who helped them navigate the flooded cave tunnels. The head of the rescue operation said they were the healthiest in the group. The rest of the boys and their coach would be rescued from the cave over the next two days.

Why it was so difficult to extricate Thai cave boys

Safe and sound

Doctors who treated the boys after their rescue reported that while they had lost weight, the otherwise appeared to be in good health. The dozens of divers and hundreds of other rescue workers have been celebrated around the world as heroes, especially 38-year-old former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died after bringing the group supplies of air on July 5.

shs/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP)