Rainfall threat dampens euphoria after UK divers help find Thai cave group
The 12 boys and their football coach disappeared in the Luang Nang Non Cave on June 23.
British divers who discovered 12 trapped boys and their football coach in flooded caves in Thailand face the daunting prospect of helping them to safety with heavy rainfall forecast for this week.
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were the first rescuers to reach the group, aged between 11 and 16, and their coach, 25, who disappeared in the Luang Nang Non Cave, in Chiang Rai province, on June 23.
The Thai military said its navy Seals had also managed to reach the stranded group, adding that they were looking healthy.
Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew said 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, although they would “have to be certain that it will work … that it’s 100% safe”.
There were scenes of elation late on Monday as relatives gathered at the cave site learned the group had been found in a stable medical condition and given high-protein liquid food.
But rescuers now must grapple with the challenge of safely extracting the group through nearly a mile of tunnels, large portions of which are underwater.
Heavy rains forecast for later this week could flood the cave even further and the boys may need to swim out using diving equipment before then, the Thai interior minister told the Associated Press.
Anupong Paojinda said they could use the same narrow passages out that their rescuers used to get in and would need to be guided by experts, an extremely dangerous task for a novice.
“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, adding: “If something happens midway, it could be life-threatening.”
The forecasted rainfall means there will not be much time to teach the boys and coach them in how to swim using scuba equipment, heightening the risk.
Another option previously suggested was waiting for the water level to drop, which some officials reportedly fear could take months, as the country’s rainy season typically lasts into October.
Rescuers have also searched for other potential entrances to drill into the chamber and airlift the group out. It is estimated that the boys are around half a mile below the surface.
But it would be a complex and delicate task as the cave stretches under a mountainside for up to six miles and the rocky ground varies in elevation throughout.
Mr Stanton and Mr 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.
Thai authorities have said that the military will make the final decision on how the group are rescued.
Relatives have been camped at the cave opening ever since the group went missing, praying for their safe return.
Tham Chanthawong, an aunt of the coach, said after they were found: “I want to give him a hug. In these 10 days, how many million seconds have there been? I’ve missed him every second.”
Footage showed children in red and blue tops perched on a rocky slope inside the chamber just above the water line after they were found.
A rescuer with an English accent is heard trying to reassure the group that help is coming, but warns they will not be taken out immediately, saying: “Not today. There’s two of us, you have to dive.”
All 13 are in a good condition after being assessed by medics, Thai navy Seals said.
Commander Rear Adm Arpakorn Yookongkaew told reporters the group had been given easily digested, high-mineral food and were being looked after by members of his team.
He said a rescue attempt where the boys dive out would have to be drilled to ensure it is safe as possible.
BCRC vice chairman Bill Whitehouse said all focus was on extracting the group safely.
“It was euphoria for a moment and then you draw back and think ‘what do we do’ – it’s not going to be easy to get 13 people out of a flooded cave,” he told the Press Association.
“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.
“The question is how much time until the water goes up again.”
The group have had a brief medical assessment and been given painkillers and antibiotics as a precaution.
“They clearly want to get them out as quick as they can, they will be making plans to get them out as quickly as possible,” he said.
Elite divers Mr Stanton and Mr Volanthen have established reputations as being among the best cave rescuers in the world, and were called upon by Thai authorities seeking expert help.
Mr Stanton, a fireman in his fifties from Coventry, and Mr Volanthen, an IT consultant in his forties based in Bristol, have broken diving world records together and both received medals for a complex 10-day rescue attempt in France in 2010.
Search efforts were hampered last week after heavy rain rushed into the cave network, with rising water and strong currents making diving “more or less impossible”.
Underwater operations resumed after the treacherous conditions improved on Sunday, with the forward search party setting off at 6am BST on Monday (1200 local time).
Despite the key role played by the British team in Monday’s remarkable events, Mr Whitehouse highlighted that they were part of a major effort overall.
“It was a huge operation of which our divers were only a relatively small part, but it happened to be a breakthrough,” he said.
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said the search mission 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.”