The second phase of a dangerous operation to rescue a dozen young footballers stuck in a flooded cave in northern Thailand began at about 11am on Monday morning. That has reportedly led to a fifth boy being brought to the surface just before 5pm on Monday.
Several more boys have reportedly passed the tricky “choke point” about a kilometer from where the remaining lads have been trapped, journalists at the scene reported late on Monday.
Earlier, a large team of local and foreign divers ventured into the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai for a second day, after a long and tortuous process to help four young boys return to the surface the previous day.
In a drama that has gripped Thailand and the world, divers on Sunday evening brought out the first of 12 boys who had been trapped in the cave in country’s far north for more than two weeks.
Four of the boys from the Wild Boars football team emerged by around 7pm local time. They were transported by helicopter and ambulances to a hospital in the provincial capital, Chiang Rai city.
First four ‘doing well’ but yet to see families
Officials have not disclosed the identity of the four boys brought out on Sunday but the Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said on Monday all were in a good condition. They have reportedly been undergoing tests and will spend 48 hours in quarantine.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was due to make a second visit to the scene late on Monday. But for families of the boys, it has been an agonizing wait.
“I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today,” Supaluk Sompiengjai, mother of Pheeraphat – known as “Night” – told AFP on Monday morning.
“We heard four boys are out but we do not know who they are. Many parents are still here waiting. None of us has been informed of anything.”
While five have been rescued by 6pm on Monday, there were concerns they may have contracted an illness while in the cave, Narongsak explained on Monday. “They will be kept away from their parents for a while because we are concerned about infections,” he said.
And rain could still re-emerge as a threat, particularly if there are complications that could delay the extraction further. Forecasters warned that heavy rain could hit the area on Monday afternoon and continue through the week.
Late on Sunday, AFP reported that further extraction efforts would be put on hold until Monday morning to allow rescue divers time to resupply air tanks needed to bring the remaining boys and their assistant coach out.
On Sunday, the rescue operation began at 10am local time but it took up to five hours for the rescue divers, many of whom are from a Navy Seal team, to get into position and then a further four hours to bring the first of the 12 boys out, the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told reporters.
Media moved away from cave entrance
Earlier in the day, Thai authorities told media and non-essential personnel – many hundreds of people – to leave the camp as they prepared for the rescue operation.
The unexpected order to kick off the rescue on Sunday came a day after the rescue-mission chief said conditions were perfect for the evacuation to begin, and as dark monsoon clouds loomed over the mountainous northern area of the country.
“Everyone who is not involved with the operations has to get out of the area immediately,” police announced via loudspeaker at the site, Agence France-Presse reported.”From the situation assessment, we need to use the area to help victims.” They gave a deadline of 9am to clear out, setting off a frenzy of moving and packing.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with their 25-year-old chaperone after soccer practice on June 23 as they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near the border with Myanmar.
At the start of the weekend, Narongsak said the boys were not ready to make the trip, but suggested later on Saturday that there may be a window of opportunity to try to get them out.
“Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect [for evacuation] in terms of the water, the weather and the boys’ health,” Narongsak told reporters. “We’re still at war with water and time,” he told reporters.
Sustained heavy rains could make the water rise to the shelf where the children are sitting, reducing the area to “less than 10 square meters,” he added, citing estimates from cave divers and experts.
Time was running out on a plan to teach the boys – some as young as 11 and not strong swimmers – to make a dive through dark, narrow passageways sometimes no more than 60 centimeters wide, that have challenged some of the world’s leading cave divers.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscores the danger of the journey even for adept professionals.
Gong Hui, a Chinese diver involved in the operation that has drawn some 130 Thai and international divers, told Reuters on Saturday before the fresh rains that water levels in the cave had “receded a lot” after sustained pumping had removed millions of liters of water.
The bid to rescue the boys has garnered international attention. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted that a team from his rocket company SpaceX in Los Angeles was building a mini-sub to help with the rescue.
“Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine … Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust,” Musk tweeted, adding that it would take eight hours to construct and 17 hours to transport to Thailand.
The “Wild Boars” team has been confined in the Tham Luang cave since June 23, when they entered after practice and were hemmed in by rising floodwaters.
Their plight has transfixed Thailand the rest of the world, and the muddy site near the cave’s entrance has swelled with media, volunteers and onlookers since the operation started.
Reporting by MCOT, AFP and other wire agencies. Writing by Asia Times