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Thailand cave rescue: Former navy Seal diver dies trying to help save trapped boys

Death of volunteer comes as officials warn oxygen is running out in chamber where boys are trapped

Adam Withnall
Friday 06 July 2018 05:17 BST
Missing Thai boys found trapped in cave with their football coach

A former Thai navy Seal has died during the operation to rescue 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave, authorities have said.

The former elite diver died while working as a volunteer to place oxygen tanks along a potential escape route for the boys. It comes as the rescue team face a race against time to free them before a new rainstorm arrives.

Speaking at a news conference on Friday morning, the Thai navy Seal commander in charge of the rescue effort named the veteran diver as Saman Kunan. Kunan died during an overnight mission after he fell unconscious from lack of oxygen, the commander said.

Former navy Seal diver Saman Kunan died trying to help save the trapped boys (Saman Kunan/Facebook)

On Friday, officials raised concerns that oxygen levels in the cave were running low, with so many people now working in them to supply the boys and prepare for their rescue. It shows how, four days after they were discovered alive, the boys still face many obstacles before they can be brought to safety.

“A former Seal who volunteered to help died last night around 2am,” Chiang Rai’s deputy governor, Passakorn Boonyaluck, told reporters at the rescue site. “His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back.”

The diver was 38 years old and had retired from the Seals, Thailand’s elite naval unit, but volunteered to return after seeing reports of the missing youth football team that have dominated the news in Thailand for nearly a fortnight.

The boys, aged 11 to 16, have been trapped for almost 13 days since they went to explore the caves after a football match on 23 June. They were discovered by two British volunteer divers on Monday night, but authorities are still trying to establish the safest way to get them out of the flooded cave network.

One option could be to simply wait until the caves dry out naturally – but that could take months, with Thailand’s monsoon season not ending until around October, and there are no guarantees that more rain wouldn’t fill up the chamber where the boys are trapped.

So authorities are working towards a plan where the boys are helped to dive out of the chamber along the same route rescuers used to find them. That journey is currently taking experienced divers about five hours, while the boys themselves have no previous experience using diving equipment and some reportedly cannot even swim.

On Friday, officials suggested the depleting oxygen levels could force their hand. “We can no longer wait for all conditions (to be ready) because circumstances are pressuring us,” Thai Seal commander Apakorn Yookongkaew told a news conference. “We originally thought the boys can stay safe inside the cave for quite some time, but circumstances have changed. We have limited amount of time.”

Speaking about Kunan’s death, Mr Yookongkaew said: “The conditions in the cave are tough.

“Once he placed the oxygen tanks he became unconscious on his way back. His buddy tried to administer first aid, when there was no response he tried to move him. We won’t let his life be in vain. We will carry on”.

Kunan had posted on social media a number of times about the mission to rescue the boys, including an Instagram picture from inside the cave network itself and a video before getting on the plane to Chiang Rai, in which he appeared upbeat and eager to help his old unit find the boys.

Last night, officials said they were worried the amount of oxygen in the chamber where the boys are trapped was depleting. Seven navy Seals, including two medics, have been looking after the group in the chamber, and others have been arriving periodically to bring supplies.

Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said rescuers would try to feed a 5km (3 mile) “oxygen pipeline” into the chamber as part of preparations for the group’s extraction.

“You see we are increasing the number of people going inside the cave. So we have to fill it up with oxygen,” Mr Osottanakorn said.

Volunteers at the Tham Luang cave were shaken by the turn of events on Friday morning.

“A navy Seal just passed away last night. How about a 12-year-old boy that will have to pass through?” Rafael Aroush, an Israeli living in Thailand who arrived at the cave site on Thursday, told Reuters.

“There will be rain and many things could go wrong. I don’t want to say it, but it could be a catastrophe,” he said.

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