Authorities in Thailand say they cannot immediately attempt an underwater evacuation of free 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, as the children have not yet learnt to use dive equipment. That is despite imminent new rainstorms threatening to undo all their best efforts to drain water from the cave network.
The official in immediate charge of the operation, Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, indicated strongly at a midnight news conference that if heavy rains started and appeared to be causing flooded areas in the cave to rise again, they would try to take the boys out with divers right away.
In addition to the rains, a new urgent threat has emerged in the form of reduced oxygen levels in the chamber where the boys are trapped. The navy SEAL commander leading the operation said today: “We originally thought the boys can stay safe inside the cave for quite some time but circumstances have changed. We have a limited amount of time.”
The dangers involved in getting the boys out of the cave were emphasised overnight when an experienced diver, 38-year-old former navy SEAL Saman Gunan, died after falling unconscious underwater. He is to be given a royal-sponsored funeral.
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Authorities have been racing to pump out water from the cave before more storms hit the region in the coming days and send water levels rising again.
At this time though, the only way for the boys to get out of the cave is by diving, something cave rescue experts warn is extremely dangerous even for those with experience.
Friday’s death of the former Seal underscores those risks. The diver was working in a volunteer capacity and died during an overnight mission in which he was placing oxygen canisters along the route divers must take to get to the children, navy SEAL commander Arpakorn Yookongkaew said.
The strategically placed canisters allow divers to stay under water for longer during what is about a five-hour trip to reach the stranded team.
While underwater, the rescuer passed out and efforts to resuscitate him failed, Mr Arpakorn said.
Another navy official said he did not believe the man’s oxygen tank ran out.
“Despite this, we will continue until we accomplish our mission,” Mr Arpakorn said.
Welcome to The Independent's live blog of the efforts to rescue 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand.
The commander of the Thai navy SEALs working to rescue a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in the country's north says he believes there is "a limited amount of time" left in which to extract the boys.
"At first we thought that we could sustain the kids' lives for a long time where they are now, but now, many things have changed. We have a limited amount of time," Arpakorn Yookongkaew told a news conference.
He did not elaborate. The comments came hours after a former navy SEAL working on the rescue passed out while diving and later died.
A senior army commander, Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakam, said the most pressing mission was to provide an oxygen line to reach the children.
FIFA has sent a letter to the president of the Football Association of Thailand offering its "deepest sympathies and support" to the families of young football players and their coach trapped in the cave.
The letter signed, by the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, also said the organisation would like to invite the youngsters and their coach to the World Cup final in Russia, should they be rescued in time and are healthy enough to travel.
The letter said the team's appearance at the final would "undoubtedly be a wonderful moment of communion and celebration."
The boys have asked the navy SEALs taking care of them in the cave for details about what has happened in the World Cup since they got trapped on 23 June.
An attempt to rescue the trapped boys could take place "today or tomorrow," Ivan Karadzic, a Danish volunteer cave diver, has told Sky News.
Earlier this morning, a former Thai navy SEAL lost their life during the rescue operation
Elon Musk has said he is sending engineers from two of his companies to Thailand to see if they can help bring out the members of a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave.
Musk tweeted the announcement after another Twitter user pleaded for him to help the 12 boys and their coach, who have been underground for almost two weeks.
In a series of tweets, Musk said his Boring Co, which digs tunnels for advanced transport systems, has advanced ground penetrating radar, and brainstormed that an air tunnel constructed with soft tubing like a bouncy castle could provide flexible passage out.
He said engineers from his Boring Co and SpaceX companies needed to be on site to appreciate the complexities of evacuation.
So what dangers will the boys face if they are asked to dive out of the cave?
“It takes six hours to get to where the children are and five hours to come back,” says Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakum, deputy commander of the Third Army Region.
And that’s for experienced navy Seal divers. The route from the chamber to the surface will see the boys contend with debris clogging some of the passageways, high water levels with strong currents to fight against and almost zero visibility in the dark, muddy water.
Thomas Hester, detective superintendent with the Australian Federal Police Specialist Response Group, said there were “heavily flooded areas” inside the cave complex.
“It’s very difficult to see, very difficult to move inside that flooding system,” says Hester.
Rockfalls are also a threat, and one that is expected only to rise if the team waits until new floodwaters hit the area.
Rescue efforts since British divers found the boys on Monday have focused on draining the flooded cave and teaching the young footballers, some of whom are as young as 11 and not competent swimmers, to attempt dives that would challenge expert cavers.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL working in the flooded cave on Friday has shaken the rescue mission, and forecasts for more rain could undermine the draining of the cave, forcing officials to consider other options.
That's why as many as 200 people are now thrashing through the dense forest hundreds of metres above the cave complex, Reuters news agency reports, searching for an alternative way in to extract the 12 boys and their coach who have now been trapped for nearly two weeks.
Their work above the Tham Luang cave took on added urgency as forecasts for rain threatened a plan to bring the boys back through cramped, water-logged passageways to the cave entrance.
"We want to find the way down. I believe we are close," Thanes Weerasiri, president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand said.
Helicopters buzzed overhead before flying to the dense blanket of green hills above the cave to help look for an alternate extraction route.
Thanes' engineers are working with the army to explore an area they believe to be the back end of the cave, chiselling away fragile limestone rocks that he said could be just hundreds of metres from where the boys are trapped.
"Originally we were exploring it as a way to bring supplies to the children from the back end of the cave, but now it could become more," said Thanes.
Chalongchai Chaiyakum, a senior Thai army officer, said that one team travelled some 300 metres down a shaft on the hill on Thursday until they reached a dead end.
The death of a Thai navy diver working to rescue the trapped boys shows how dangerous the operation is, a British expert has said.
Bill Whitehouse, vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) said the death of volunteer rescuer and former Thai Seal, Saman Kunan, is "awful news".
Mr Whitehouse said of Saman's death: "It illustrates the dangers in the operation that is being undertaken, it isn't a walk in the park.
"We don't know the details of why it has happened, but things can happen.
"It is a very unforgiving environment, if something goes wrong you can't just pop up to the surface."
The strategically placed canisters that Sanan was working to place allow divers to stay under water for longer during what is about a five-hour trip to reach the stranded youngsters and their coach.
Rescuers are currently pumping millions of litres of water out of the cave network to try and extract the group through nearly a mile of tunnels before forecasted heavy rains move in on Saturday.
Thai officials are not only racing against worsening weather, but also lowered oxygen levels in the underground complex in the north of the country - which Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osatanakorn has said is due to the number of workers inside the cave.
Seal commander Mr Yookongkaew also stressed to a press conference on Friday that "things have changed" and there is only a "limited amount of time".
The boys, aged 11-16, and their coach, 25, were trapped inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai after a football game on June 23.
Monsoon flooding cut off their escape, and they have been on a rocky shelf inside a cave chamber since and although weak, are largely in good health, authorities have said.
Two elite British divers, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, were the first rescuers to reach the group on Monday night.
Croatia's national soccer team, which is competing in the ongoing World Cup, has offered its "support and love" to the trapped Thai football team.
The statement said: "We are impressed with the courage and strength the young boys and their coach have shown despite the scary circumstances they find themselves in."
It added: "Such situations are larger than sport, but their sport spirits will give them strength to face this challenge."
It finished with the message: "To our soccer family in Thailand, we wish to express our support and love, and we hope the boys and their coach will be together soon with their families."
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