Thai officials say heavy rains forecast for the coming days could worsen floods in a mountain cave, forcing authorities to speed up their extraction of the 12 boys and the soccer coach who are trapped there.
Rescuers have appealed for 15 small and extra small full face masks, fuelling speculation that divers are preparing to lead them to safety through a 750-metre flooded stretch of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
A rescuer told reporters that it was too dangerous to use conventional breathing apparatus as this could easily be knocked out during the dive.
Officials said the 13 are mostly in stable medical condition and have received high-protein liquid food after they were located in the cave in northern Chiang Rai province during a desperate search that has transfixed the world.
Thai navy SEALs say the boys and their coach are healthy and being looked after by medics.
SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said seven members of his unit — including a doctor and a nurse — are now with the 12 boys and their coach in the cave where they took shelter.
He told a news conference that his team members “have given the boys food, starting from easily digested and high-powered food with enough minerals.” He said that having the rescued people dive out of the cave was one of several options being considered. If it were employed, he said they “have to be certain that it will work and have to have a drill to make that it’s 100 percent safe.”
According to Thai media reports, a first meal of pork and rice is being prepared for the boys with rescuers signalling that sealed portions of the dish will be taken to the trapped boys.
“A telephone line will be installed tonight… they (the boys) will be able to talk with their families via military phone,” Passakorn Boonyarat, deputy governor of Chiang Rai province, told reporters late on Tuesday.
He refused to speculate on how long they might be trapped, but explained that while there are enough provisions for four months, anyone fit and able to leave the cave would be evacuated as soon as possible.
“Any boys who are ready can come out first,” via “chamber three” a cavern being used to as a base to store food, oxygen tanks and diving gear as well as plan the complex logistics of how to move 13 weak and inexperienced divers out of a partially-submerged cave.
BOYS ‘MAY HAVE TO SWIM OUT’
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said that the boys may need to swim out using diving equipment ahead of bad weather forecast for later in the week. He said the boys would be brought out via the same complicated route through which their rescuers entered.
While efforts are to pump out the floodwaters continue, Anupong said it’s clear some areas cannot be drained and in order to get out, the boys may need to use diving gear while being guided by two professional divers each. He conceded that if something went awry, it could be disastrous.
“Diving is not easy. For people who have never done it, it will be difficult, unlike diving in a swimming pool, because the cave’s features have small channels,” he said. “If something happens mid-way it could be life-threatening.”
Earlier, the Australian Federal Police, who are helping with the rescue mission, said conditions inside the cave were proving “incredibly challenging”.
“Our Specialist Response Group dive team have been diving shortly after arrival (in Chiang Rai) and one of the difficulties they face is a very flooded cave system, it’s very difficult to see and move through that system,” Detective Superintendent Thomas Hester told reporters in Canberra.
“There are a lot of small, tight areas where larger size people, especially with equipment, may have trouble moving through.”
Detective Superintendent Hester said it would be extremely difficult for the divers to bring the boys back with them.
“The ability to try to pull the boys through those areas with any diving equipment is incredibly challenging,” he said.
TEAM TRAPPED BY HIGH WATER LEVELS
The 12 boys, ranging in age from 11 to 16, went missing on June 23 after apparently setting out to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave network, one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions, accompanied by their 25-year-old coach.
The boys were members of the Moo Pa soccer team, which directly translates to wild boar.
They were said to have regularly visited the cave in the district of Mae Sai for training and recreation.
Video released by the Thai navy showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting on a dry area inside the cave above the water as a spotlight from the British cave divers who found them illuminated their faces.
Richard Stanton and John Volanthen used specialist diving techniques and risked their own lives to tackle the two-kilometre underground labyrinth.
Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said the health of the boys and coach were checked using a field assessment in which red is critical condition, yellow is serious and green is stable.
“We found that most of the boys are in green condition,” he said. “Maybe some of the boys have injuries or light injuries and would be categorised as yellow condition. But no one is in red condition.” Cave rescue experts have said it could be safer to simply supply them where they are for now, rather than attempting to have the boys dive out. That could take as long as months, however, given that Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts through October.
Thailand’s leader thanked the international community for their support and assistance in the search and rescue operation.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said on Tuesday that finding the boys “has created gratitude and happiness for people all over the country.” He said: “I have to thank the international community in assisting us. This would not have been possible if we didn’t help each other. Everybody did their part.”