By Panu Wongcha-um
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Rescuers raced to pump water from a cave in northern Thailand on Tuesday as forecasted heavy rain threatened to complicate efforts to free a young soccer team found trapped for 10 days, an ordeal officials warned they may have to bear longer.
Divers struggled through narrow passages and murky waters to find the 12 boys and their coach late on Monday night on an elevated rock about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the mouth of the cave.
News of the boys’ survival sparked jubilation in a nation that has been gripped by the harrowing drama.
A video shot by rescuers in flickering torchlight revealed boys clad in shorts and red and blue shirts sitting or standing on the rock above an expanse of water.
“How many of you are there – 13? Brilliant,” a member of the multinational rescue team, speaking in English, tells the boys. “You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”
“Thank you,” one of the boys says.
One boy asks when they will get out, to which the rescuer answers: “Not today. You have to dive.”
The boys were found in weak condition, but with only minor injuries.
Interior minister Anupong Paochinda said rescuers needed to double down to reduce water levels in the cave.
Rain continued to fall in Chiang Rai on Tuesday and was forecast to intensify from Wednesday.
“Quickly pump out water first to get the kids out as soon as possible,” Anupong told reporters. “If it rains too much, water levels will rise and make getting them out harder.”
Two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were first to reach the boys, having had strong experience in cave rescues, according to Bill Whitehouse of the British Cave Rescue Council.
They found the group along with a team of Thai navy SEAL divers.
Aged between 11 and 16, the boys went missing with the 25-year-old after soccer practice on June 23 after they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar.
Rescuers had been focusing on an elevated mound, which cavers have named “Pattaya Beach”, in the cave complex’s third chamber, knowing that it could have provided the boys with a refuge when rains flooded the cave.
But Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said the divers reached Pattaya Beach but found it flooded, so they went 400 meters further and discovered the team.
When news came through that the boys had been found, relatives waiting at a nearby shelter were seen cheering, smiling and receiving calls. Rescuers shook hands and congratulated each other as occasional cheers broke out.
Rescuers have to decide how best to get the group out, and were warning it could take time.
In the meantime, the lucky 13 have been given energy gels to sustain them while a plan is worked out to bring them out safely.
Options considered included waiting until water levels subside, or teaching the group to use diving gear to navigate the flooded cave.
“Helping the kids will take time,” Navy chief, Admiral Naris Pratoomsuwan, told reporters.
“From the operations center in the third chamber to where they were found, it takes about three hours to get there and three hours to come back.”
Provincial governor Narongsak said the group’s health was assessed overnight and the boys had sustained only light injuries. Rescue workers would now focus on getting them out, then a hand over to medical teams waiting outside the cave, he said.
Sura Jeetwatee, a doctor who is part of the operations, said the boys were able to walk and had survived by staying where they were and drinking water that dripped from stalactite formations.
“They were smart to drink water in the cave,” Sura told Reuters.
Assistant government spokesman Colonel Athisit Chainuwat said the SEAL team was still with the boys and rescuers were trying to install lights, a power supply and get communications equipment to the boys.
“The prime minister asked that this be a lesson in disaster relief in the future,” Athisit said.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre & Martin Petty; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)