[Update 10/7/18] The last remaining member of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach have been pulled out of a flooded cave in Thailand, bringing an end to a near three-week ordeal that prompted a huge international rescue effort.
The twelfth boy and his coach were the last of the team to be rescued Tuesday, after a complicated three-day operation to extricate the team, who became trapped on June 23 when rising flood water cut off the exit, deep inside the cave.
In the last 18 days, what began as a local search for the missing 13 turned into a complex rescue operation, involving hundreds of experts who flew in from around the world to help.
The parents of the boys have maintained a constant vigil outside the cave since they went missing, praying for their safe return.
The drama has captivated the world as cave experts grappled with the problem of how to free the young, under-nourished boys, some of whom couldn’t swim, from a flooded cavern as monsoon rains threatened to raise water levels even further.
So treacherous were the conditions that one Thai Navy SEAL died during operations last week, a blow to rescuers who faced a race against time to free the soccer team.
All of the boys and their coach have now been transported to a nearby hospital where eight of their teammates are recuperating after being rescued Sunday and Monday.
A small number of Navy SEALs, including a doctor who stayed with the team for a week after their discovery, remain in the cave system and are expected to emerge soon.
“Waiting for four more Thai Navy SEALs (to come out of the cave) who have been accompanying the kids. Please send your support to them,” says a post on their official Facebook site.
Another post, confirming the rescue of all 13 stranded members of the team, said: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.”
Nineteen divers entered the cave at 10 a.m. local time Tuesday, many on their third mission in three days, with the aim of bringing everyone inside the cave out.
Tuesday’s rescue took nine hours in total, from the time the divers entered the cave to bringing out the boys and their coach.
Rescued boys recovering in hospital
Earlier Tuesday, more details emerged about the ages and condition of the children already freed from the cave.
All eight boys rescued on Sunday and Monday are being treated in an isolation ward in a Chiang Rai hospital. Medical officials told reporters Tuesday that they’re healthy, fever-free, mentally fit and “seem to be in high spirits.” Some of the boys have even asked for bread with chocolate spread – which they were given, said Jedsada Chokedamrongsook, the permanent secretary of the Thai Health Ministry. Though they’ll mostly be eating a food similar to milk and rich in proteins and nutrients.
Chokedamrongsook said the first group of boys taken out on Sunday were aged 14 to 16. Their body temperatures were very low when they emerged, and two are suspected of having lung inflammation.
Families of the first four have been able to see their children through a glass window, Chokedamrongsook said. They were also able to talk on the phone. They’ll be allowed to enter the room if tests show the boys are free of infection.
The second group freed on Monday were aged 12 to 14. One had a very slow heartbeat but had responded well to treatment, Chokedamrongsook said. The hospital has sent test samples from the boys to a lab in Bangkok. Authorities will likely look for signs of Histoplasmosis, also known as “cave disease,” an infection caused by breathing in spores of a fungus often found in bird and bat droppings, according to the Mayo Clinic.
They are all likely to stay in hospital for seven days due to their weakened immune systems.
Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha visited the hospital Monday, and spoke to relatives and hospital workers.
Shortly after the news of the boys’ safe return broke, US President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations to the Navy SEAL team.
Divers involved in the rescue described treacherous conditions, with fast-moving shallow water passing through very narrow passages.
“This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. The lower the water is getting, the stronger the current. It’s stronger now. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
He’s one of a group of divers whose job is to transport air tanks into the tunnels for the SEAL teams.
Before the final rescue, he told CNN that divers inside the cave faced a number of challenges. “We can only see our hands (at a) short distance. Secondly, the stones are razor sharp which is dangerous for our diving, (and) thirdly the passage is very narrow,” he said. Keasub said that the thought of their own children kept them going.
“I’m quite emotional as a father – everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave.”
The four boys rescued from the cave in Thailand Monday were wearing full face dive masks while they were carried out of the cave to the make shift hospital nearby, according to an eyewitness who is part of the rescue operations stationed at the entrance of the cave.
He added that the boys were also wearing dive suits while being carried on stretchers and that their masks were removed by medical staff at the makeshift hospital.
A dangerous journey
For several days, rain threatened to hamper what was already a complicated rescue mission.
When it became clear the boys were likely going to have to dive out, experts were sent in to teach them how to use scuba gear. Officials sourced full-faced oxygen masks small enough to fit the boys, to remove the chances of them falling off during the long arduous journey through the craggy tunnels.
Two days before the first four boys were rescued, officials warned that oxygen levels with in the cave had fallen to 15%. According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the “optimal range” of oxygen needed in the air a person breathes in order to maintain normal function is between 19.5% and 23.5%.
Dangerously low levels would have put the boys at risk of hypoxia, a condition that causes altitude sickness. Forecasts of more rain also threatened to raise water levels, further educing the amount of available air and jeopardizing efforts to get the boys out. However, a few days of relatively clear skies allowed rescuers to pump enough water out of the cave to allow the boys to walk through some sections.
[Update 7/10/18] The second day of rescue operations at the cave site in northern Thailand ended after four more boys were brought out of the flooded cave system on Monday.
Eight boys have now been freed, while four remain inside the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex with their coach.
On Monday, they endured their 17th night trapped on a ledge 4 kilometres inside the cave system.
Their rescued teammates are being treated in quarantine at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital.
Former Chiang Rai governor and rescue mission commander Narongsak Osotthanakorn said doctors were monitoring the rescued boys for any illnesses they may have picked up in the cave and supervising efforts to build up their strength after they spent more than two weeks with little food and no natural light.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the hospital Monday evening after speaking with the families, who are all still gathered near the cave entrance.
Osotthanakorn said those rescued Monday were in better condition than those freed the previous day, adding that all the boys rescued are well.
Osotthanakorn’s statement could indicate the rescuers opted to send the weaker ones out first, a reversal of the previously announced strategy.
The rescue workers are using compressed air tanks and oxygen tanks. They are now resting and need at least 20 hours to prepare for the third operation, Osotthanakorn said, but timings could change depending on weather and water levels.
Monday’s rescue was carried out four to five hours ahead of schedule due to favourable conditions, he said.
Officials said late Sunday that the operation had been paused to allow oxygen tanks depleted during the first phase to be refilled.
It is unclear whether that was also a determining factor in suspending operations Monday.
Wild Boars teammates resume training as hope grows
Shortly after the eighth boy arrived at the hospital on Monday, the Thai Navy SEALs, who are leading the rescue operation, posted a celebratory message on their Facebook page, listing the “boars” that had been freed and ending with the morale-boosting “hooyah.”
Elon Musk suggests ‘kid-size’ submarine
The post echoed the buoyant mood among the volunteers at the support centre near the cave system Monday, with people sensing that the rescue mission was nearing the finish line.
Jokes were shared and smiles covered the faces of many of those who have made the site their home over the last two weeks.
That marked a huge shift since Friday, when a diver died while navigating the dangerous, water-filled passageways inside the caves, raising fears that the rescue could still end in tragedy for the trapped boys and their coach.
But the successful rescue of eight of the boys has brought hope to this community.
On Monday night, members of the under-17s Wild Boars soccer team met and played football for the first time since their younger teammates disappeared.
The rescue mission has been a huge operation, led by the Royal Thai Navy’s SEAL unit, and supported by a cast of hundreds.
Among those are US military partners, British cave diving experts – including the two men who first located the boys a week ago – and rescue workers from Australia, China and other countries.
The first boy to emerge Monday was seen on a stretcher just before 4:30 p.m. local time. He was taken by helicopter and ambulance to the hospital in Chiang Rai. Two more boys left the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex a short time later and were transferred to a medical facility on site, followed soon after by a fourth boy, according to an eyewitness working with the rescue team and stationed at the entrance to the cave.
All the boys rescued Monday were wearing full face dive masks and dive suits as they were carried out of the cave to a makeshift medical center nearby, according to the witness.
They were later transferred to hospital by helicopter and ambulance, with support teams using large umbrellas to screen the boys from media and other onlookers.
As each ambulance sped by, people lining the streets of Chiang Rai watched on and cheered.
Danish cave diver Ivan Karadzic was stationed at “Camp 6” inside the cave system Sunday, changing the oxygen tanks of the divers as they emerged.
He said Monday that the boys were wearing several wetsuits to “minimise heat loss,” which is a concern due to their “very skinny” bodies and the cold water.
The divers involved in Monday’s operation said it was “even more smoothly executed than yesterday,” according to Karadzic. He added that divers would likely be bringing new oxygen tanks into the cave overnight and putting them at “strategic places” along the route. Karadzic described this as a necessary contingency measure due to the length of the route being traversed by the divers and children.
Speaking to CNN before Monday’s rescues, a relative of one member of the soccer team said that the boys’ families had agreed to remain at the cave until all of the boys and the coach are brought out. Another family member told CNN that they hadn’t been told which boys had been pulled out, and who is still trapped in the cave.
Authorities have refused to confirm names reported in local media, but in the small town of Mae Sai where the cave is located, it’s all anybody is talking about.
Flooded passageways still dangerous
Officials said Sunday that it might take “days” to bring all 12 boys and their coach to the surface.
Each boy is being accompanied by two divers and it takes hours to negotiate the flooded tunnels through the dark, murky water.
Those still inside the cave are perched on a small muddy ledge, surrounded by floodwater and with a limited supply of oxygen.
The most dangerous part of the journey out of the labyrinth cave system is the first kilometre, during which they are required to squeeze through a narrow flooded channel.
Rescuers need to hold the boys’ oxygen tanks in front of them and swim pencil-like through submerged holes. Having completed this section, the boys are then handed over to separate, specialist rescue teams, who help assist them through the remainder of the cave, much of which they can wade through.
Danish diver Karadzic said on Monday that the children are attached to the divers with a thin line, a commonly used tool in low visibility situations to minimise risk.
Rescuers are racing to beat the next downpour, which could further complicate efforts to remove the boys and their coach.
On Monday, skies were largely clear over the site but rain has been forecast for at least the next three days.
At least three boys who have been trapped inside a Thai cave appear to have been rescued, as authorities race against time to free the remaining boys and their soccer coach who have been underground for more than two weeks.
A member of the rescue team stationed at the entrance of the cave witnessed three boys being evacuated out of the cave in northern Thailand late Sunday.
The boys emerged several hours after a team of 13 international cave diving experts and five Thai Navy SEALs entered the cave to begin the treacherous attempt to accompany the boys one by one through the flooded, narrow tunnels.
Families of the boys have been waiting for hours for news since authorities announced the rescue attempt would commence early Sunday, as storm clouds threatened to dump more water on the flooded caverns, undoing efforts to drain them.
“Today is D-day,” Chiang Rai’s Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn declared earlier in the day.
The rescue mission is far from over. To reach the boys, divers must navigate a series of dark, flooded tunnels for up to six hours.
With the entire round trip taking roughly 11 hours to complete, it could be days before the entire group emerges.
Twelve boys – aged between 11 and 16 – and their coach, were discovered by two British divers on July 2, nine days after they disappeared during an outing in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex, in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.
Those still inside the cave are perched on a small muddy ledge four kilometres inside the cave, surrounded by flood water and with a limited supply of oxygen.
Race against time
For the boys, the most dangerous part is the first kilometre, in which they are required to pass through a submerged channel no wider than a person. During this process, rescuers need to hold their oxygen tanks in front of them and swim pencil-like through submerged holes.
Having completed this section, the boys are then handed over to separate specialist rescue teams, who help assist them through the remainder of the caves, much of which they can wade through.
But rescuers have a dwindling window of opportunity, with forecasters predicting the return of heavy monsoon rains in the coming days, effectively sealing off the cave until October.
“We have two obstacles: water and time. This what we have been racing against since day one. We have to do all we can, even though it is hard to fight the force of nature,” Osotthanakorn said earlier, as rain began to fall across the site.
A rescue mission like no other
Divers have previously described conditions in the cave network as some of the most extreme they have ever faced.
The decision to move the boys using divers has not been taken lightly.
On Friday, a former Thai Navy SEAL died while returning from an operation to deliver oxygen tanks to the cave where the boys are located.
Finnish volunteer diver Mikko Paasi, a long-term resident of Thailand, said the death of the Thai Navy SEAL had changed the mood on the ground and made real for rescuers just how dangerous the mission had become.
“Definitely, you can feel it that it has an effect, but we’re moving on. Everyone is a professional so we’re trying to put it away and avoid it happening again,” he said, adding: “Everybody is focusing on getting these boys out – keeping them alive or getting them out.”
Parents’ constant vigil
In the hours preceding the rescue, a letter the boys had sent to their families was published on the Thai SEALs’ Facebook page. The letter shows the boys in good spirits despite their ordeal.
In neat blue handwriting, 11-year-old Chanin Viboonrungruang, the youngest of the group, told his parents not to worry, and said he was looking forward to eating fried chicken.
His parents, who along with other families, have maintained a constant vigil at the site since the boys first became trapped.
On reading the letter Saturday evening, Chanin’s father, Tanawut Viboonrungruang, said he felt a great sense of relief. “I had been worried about my son, that he would be exhausted, he would be tired,” he said.
Now, more than two weeks after their children became trapped in a flooded cave, some of the families are finally celebrating their return.
Source: Steve George, Sheena McKenzie, Euan McKirdy, Kocha Olarn/CNN-Wire