By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
The first four of 12 boys on a youth soccer team were evacuated safely Sunday in a dramatic rescue after being trapped inside the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand for more than two weeks, the disaster management director confirmed.
Earlier, the Facebook page of the Thai Navy SEALs reported that four of the boys had been freed in a daring operation launched on Sunday morning (local time). Five divers from the elite SEALs were involved in the rescue.
“The 4th Wild Boar exited the cave at 19:47 (7:47 p.m.),” the SEALs posted on Facebook. The boys are members of the Wild Boar Academy Mae Sai soccer team.
Late Sunday night, officials announced that efforts to rescue the remaining eight boys and their coach would take place later within the next day.
During a press conference near the cave, Narongsak Osottanakorn, the former governor of Chiang Rai province who is in charge of disaster management during the crisis, confirmed the first four had been rescued.
“We safely transferred four to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital,” he told reporters Sunday night. “They left our area under the care of us for the hospital before 8 p.m.”
Rain soaked the region on Sunday and additional monsoonal storms were expected, leading officials to launch the rescue effort. Rain returned Sunday night after the first four boys were brought out of the cave.
Previously, officials had weighed an option to keep the 12 boys and their soccer coach inside the cave for months with food and medical supplies until water levels receded and it was safe for them to walk out of the cave.
But because of the intensifying monsoonal rains, the authorities moved to undertake the dangerous mission of evacuating the team through flooded and narrow passages leading out of the cave, officials said.
The young soccer players were trained in recent days to wear and breathe through scuba gear, but expert divers warned that it could be perilous for the boys to try to dive and swim out because they were inexperienced.
“We assessed the situation with all parties involved including the meteorological department and all believed we could do it,” Narongsak said.
Narongsak said the operation would resume after a pause.
“Today, we were successful. We will do the next operation when we are ready,” he said. “I can’t tell when it will be exactly, but it will be in the next 10 to 25 hours,” Narongsak said.
The dozen boys – ranging in age between 11 and 16 – and their 25-year-old coach disappeared on June 23 while exploring the cave. Divers found them nearly 5 km (3.1) miles inside the cave on July 2, more than a week after they went missing.
Since then, around-the clock rescue efforts involving hundreds of Thai personnel and volunteers, as well as divers and engineers from multiple countries, have gripped Thailand and the rest of the world.
On Sunday morning, the five Thai Navy SEALs described as the country’s best, 10 foreign divers and three technicians entered the cave to begin rescue efforts that officials said would take at least 11 hours amid dangerous conditions. Since the boys went missing, 90 divers including 50 foreigners participated in rescue efforts, Narongsak said.
The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days and volunteers had drained the water level considerably inside the cave, Narongsak told Reuters news service. An Australian doctor who is part of the rescue mission checked the boys on Saturday night and signed off on the rescue mission.