THAM LUANG CAVE, Thailand—International rescuers working to extract a youth soccer team from a flooded cave system in northern Thailand raced Wednesday to drain a route to freedom before an incoming storm again raises water levels in the underground labyrinth.
The worsening weather forecast is for heavy rain within days as the tropical wet season becomes more entrenched.
Thai officials said the 12 boys and their coach appeared to be in good shape and physically ready for an extraction attempt if enough water can be pumped out of the cave. A video released Wednesday by Thai Navy SEALs showed the team inside a cavern smiling and flashing “V” signs for the camera. Many were wrapped in foil blankets, and some wore fresh clothing brought in by rescue divers; one sported an England soccer shirt.
Thai government spokesman Lt. Gen. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak called for caution over time pressures to extract the boys. “The utmost objective we have is to be safe,” he said.
Others involved in the operation suggested an extraction could be imminent. “If everything goes well, they can get out tomorrow or the day after,” said Claus Rasmussen, a diver at Blue Label Diving in Phuket, who is offering advice at the cave site. “If not, then maybe we’re looking at a four-month option,” referring to a proposal that would see the team wait out the remainder of the rainy season, which can run until November.
THAM LUANG CAVE
Team and coach found
800 meters to 1 km
below the surface
Some belongings found
Sources: Shepton Mallet Caving Club (cave path); British Cave Rescue Council (location details); Google (image)
Mr. Rasmussen said one plan under consideration would pair each child with three divers who would guide them out individually and carry air tanks that attach to masks for the children.
One person involved in the rescue effort who asked not to be identified said divers are attempting to clear an exit from the cave and pump out as much water as possible. He said water levels inside the cave system, among Thailand’s largest, have gone down in recent days between 5 and 10 centimeters (about 2 to 4 inches). A lack of heavy rain in the past few days has helped the operation. Water, however, has again started coming in from an unknown source, complicating efforts.
Cave-diving experts have said that giving the children scuba gear and guiding them out carries significant risk. The passageways are narrow and sometimes difficult to maneuver, and the boys are a considerable distance into the cave. Some caverns are completely flooded. If one group gets into trouble, it might have to retrace its steps for hundreds of yards against a fast-moving current to reach safety.
Another possibility is to find a way to drill through the surface above or search for an alternative route into the miles-long cave system. Mr. Rasmussen said the boys have claimed to hear noises like dogs barking and roosters crowing. Although they haven’t been confirmed by divers, the reports have led Thai authorities to redouble efforts to locate possible holes to the surface through which the children could be rescued, he said.
The boys, who range from 11 to 16 years, entered the cave complex with their 25-year-old coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, on June 23 after finishing a soccer game, said the government spokesman, Lt. Gen. Weerachon. One member of the team who didn’t join the expedition said Mr. Ekkapol advised them to have a good breakfast and bring water. One team member who didn’t go on the cave hike, Songpon Kanthawong, 13 years old, said the squad idolized their coach and described him as a selfless leader they would follow anywhere.
The Way Out
Rescuers have been debating the safest way to get the trapped youth soccer team out of the Tham Luang Cave. Options include drilling into the cave complex from above and leaving the boys in place until the end of the rainy season, which could be months. A look at why taking them out now could be dangerous.
THAM LUANG CAVE
The 13 were found in a cavern above the level of rising waters just past a feature known as ‘Pattaya Beach.’
Low visibility from muddy water makes it difficult for even experienced divers to stay oriented.
Flowing water makes the four-hour trek out difficult for the boys, who cannot swim.
Parts of the passageways are underwater.
Narrow stretches would require children to go single file, following a guide rope. If a child were to panic, it would be difficult to help them.
Note: Divers sometimes may have to remove their tanks.
Source: Thai government, staff reports
When the team entered the Tham Luang Cave, some left their soccer cleats and backpacks with their bicycles outside. Then, a flash flood cut them off from the entrance and they sought out higher ground further inside the cave as water levels quickly rose. Family members raised the alarm. They were located by a team of British diving experts late Monday after 10 days underground.
Lt. Gen. Weerachon said the boys had some snacks with them and a little water. When they realized they were trapped, they ate sparingly, sometimes augmenting their supplies by drinking water dripping from the cave wall. Mr. Ekkapol, the coach, had warned them not to drink from the muddy floodwaters and taught them basic meditation techniques to stay calm. Lt. Gen. Weerachon said each boy had a flashlight and they took turns using them to conserve batteries.
A Buddhist monk who had earlier held a prayer for the boys’ safety blessed a number of holy red string bracelets, some of which were distributed Wednesday among Navy SEALs for good luck, according to a person who saw the ceremony. Meanwhile, officials unsuccessfully devoted energy to a plan to connect the soccer team, nicknamed the Wild Boars, via fiber-optic and phone cables to their parents and rescuers on the outside.
Photos: Rescuers Work to Get Thai Soccer Team Out of a Cave
A youth soccer team and its coach were found alive deep inside a Thai cave complex. Getting them out will be extremely difficult.
The fiber-optic cable is now installed up to a midsection of the cave system, according to Nucha Kamtap, a local manager of CAT Telecom, which is in charge of handling communications in the cave. But that section is still short of the boys’ location, and he suggested that given the improved conditions in the cave, they may never have to install the last section.
Medical experts have warned about the psychological effects of staying underground for so long. Thai authorities, however, are concerned that the worsening weather could make it harder to supply food and water to the team, forcing them to order the boys’ extraction despite the risk.
—Wilawan Watcharasakwet at Tham Luang Cave and James Hookway in Bangkok contributed to this article.