The coach of a youth football team trapped for two weeks in a Thai cave has offered his “apologies to the parents” of the boys in a scrawled note released by the Thai Navy.
Thailand is holding its breath for the safe return of the group, with heavy rains forecast and fears mounting over the high level of water in the cave.
Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, was for nine days the only adult with the 12 boys – aged 11 to 16 – until they were discovered on a muddy ledge by British rescue divers on Monday.
“To all the parents, all the kids are still fine. I promise to take the very best care of the kids,” he said in a note given to a diver but published on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page on Saturday. “Thank you for all the moral support and I apologize to the parents.”
It is the first message from the coach, whose role in the team’s predicament has split social media in the country. Many have lauded him after reports he gave his share of food to the children. Others have criticized him for agreeing to take the young boys into the cave.
The group entered the cave on June 23 and have been trapped as floodwaters continued to rise. “To my grandma and aunt, I’m here. Don’t be too worried. Please take care,” he added in the letter.
On Friday, a retired Thai SEAL navy diver died while helping to rescue the boys. His death raised concerns about plans to bring the boys and their coach out through the cramped, waterlogged passageways of the Tham Luang cave.
None of the boys can swim and Thai Navy SEALs have been trying to teach them basic scuba skills inside the cramped cave chamber.
Navy SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew said rescuers may have no choice but to attempt the tricky extraction of the group, the first official admission that they cannot wait out the rainy season underground.
“At first, we thought the children could stay for a long time … but now things have changed, we have a limited time,” Apakorn Yookongkaew told reporters.
The high risks involved in getting the boys out through the flooded tunnels in the cave were highlighted by the death of the diver, identified as Saman Kunan, who passed out and perished while returning from the section where the boys are trapped.
He was helping a team of divers trying to install an air line to the small chamber where the children are. The SEAL commander said oxygen levels in the chamber had dropped but added that a doctor was with the team and monitoring their health.
While oxygen levels have since improved, the governor of the Chiang Rai region, where the cave is situated, said the boys had enough strength to walk but could not swim to safety.
Narongsak Osotthanakorn stressed that the health of most of the boys had “improved to normal,” and that divers were continuing to teach diving and breathing techniques. When asked if a rescue attempt would be made overnight if it started to rain, he said: “No, the boys can’t dive at this time.”
With expert divers making exhausting 11-hour round trips – six hours to reach them and five to return – many question how the boys could make it out safely if an experienced diver could not.
“It’s very risky [diving out]. Think about it, a Navy SEAL just passed away last night, so how about a 12-year-old kid,” said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli volunteer helping the rescue bid.
Another plan to extract the children involves drilling a shaft into the cave near where the boys are holding out. This was thought to be the most dangerous option, but despite the best efforts of experts on the scene, a location for any potential drill site has yet to be identified.
Meanwhile, American businessman Elon Musk took to Twitter on Friday, offering to help in the rescue effort. Later in the day a spokesman for The Boring Company – the tunnel construction company founded by Musk in 2016 – confirmed it was speaking with the Thai government and sending people to the rescue site.
A spokesman for the Boring Company told the BBC: “We are speaking with the Thai government to see how we can help, and we are sending SpaceX/Boring Company people from the US to Thailand today to offer support on the ground.
“Once we confirm what exactly will be helpful to send or do, we will. We are getting feedback and guidance from the people on the ground in Chiang Rai to determine the best way for us to assist their efforts.”
If the boys are safely extracted they will become instant celebrities. FIFA has invited the team and the coach to see the World Cup final in Russia and football celebrities from around the world have sent them messages of encouragement.
“If, as we all hope, they are reunited with their families in the coming days and their health allows them to travel, FIFA would be delighted to invite them to attend the 2018 World Cup final as our guests,”FIFA president Gianni Infantino wrote in a letter to the head of the Football Association of Thailand.
Anmar Mirza, coordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission, 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. If the dives are difficult then supply will be difficult, but the risk of trying to dive them out is also exponentially greater.”
Jubilation across Thailand
Monday’s astonishing discovery sparked jubilation across Thailand after the country mounted a massive and grueling operation beset by heavy downpours and fast-moving floodwaters.
“We called this ‘mission impossible’ because it rained every day … but with our determination and equipment we fought nature,” Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said on Tuesday morning.
The boys were discovered at about 10pm on Monday by two UK divers with 35 years of experience.
Thai news has since been dominated by reports of the search, which has involved more than 1,000 personnel including rescue teams from Britain, the United States, Japan, Australia, Myanmar and elsewhere.
– with reporting by AFP