By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
Rescuers in Thailand were no closer on Thursday to deciding when and how to extract 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave complex, where they were found this week, pale and weak but otherwise in good health, after nine days lost underground.
The dramatic search and rescue operation for the junior soccer team, who disappeared in the cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, had seemed to be nearing an end when British and Thai divers found the boys late on Monday, clustered on a small, muddy bank in a flooded chamber.
Attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometers of dangerously flooded tunnels.
The navy has raised the possibility that the 13 could be in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province until the flood waters recede, at the end of the rainy season in four months.
But others say the boys could be out in a matter of days if the weather is on their side and water can be pumped out of the cave complex, and if they can be taught to use scuba gear.(Graphic: Lost boys in Thailand cave - https://tmsnrt.rs/2MqrPOB)
Kobchai Boonarana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, said it was up to the rescue team in the cave to decide whether and when the boys would be strong enough to tackle the journey out.
"Their conditions, we can see that their morale is good but what about their strength and their ability? That's up to the team inside to decide," Kobchai told reporters on Thursday.
"Our job is to keep pumping out water and it is up to the team inside to assess the safety level and whether the kids can travel safely through," he said.
Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakum, deputy commander of the Third Army Region, said it takes rescuers 11 hours to do a round-trip from the cave's entrance to the group and back again, working against water currents inside the cave.
Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said the group did not have to be brought out of the cave at the same time.
"We are assessing weather conditions, if it rains and water level rises, how many hours, days do we have?" he said.
Some relatives of the boys gathered near the cave early on Thursday, where a few rescuers were marching up to its entrance, a contrast to days of frantic activity during a search that has grabbed media attention around the world.
One mother said she had not been able to contact her boy.
"We can't send them messages yet," said Ratdao Chantrapul, 37, the mother of 14-year-old Prajak Sutham.
"Yesterday, they tried to take in mobile phones but the bag it was in broke," she said.
Rescuers had to contend with days of heavy rain that flooded the cave complex at the beginning of the search but the weather has been relatively dry for the past four days.
Rescuers have sent in food, water and medical staff while they have been pumping water out of the tunnels in a bid to lower water levels to help with the rescue.
But the meteorological department warned on Thursday that up to 60 percent of the country's north, including Chiang Rai, can expect heavy rain from July 7 to July 12.
Volunteers have been descending on the cave site to join the multinational rescue team, which includes Australian police, U.S. military personnel and British cavers as well as more than 1,000 Thai army and navy personnel.
Father and son team Rafael and Shlomi Aroush drove for 12 hours from their home in Thailand's northeastern Udon Thani province to help with the rescue effort, arriving at the cave early on Thursday.
Rafael, 53, who is originally from Israel but has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years, said he had been inside the cave 25 years ago and found that it was more difficult to navigate than other caves he had tackled.
"It's very narrow. The way divers have to work is not a normal way of diving. The visibility is also really bad. You're diving blindly," Aroush told Reuters.
He said it would be challenging for the boys.
"Learning to dive is easy, but this is not normal diving. This is diving in a cave," he said.
(Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat in CHIANG RAI, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel and Darren Schuettler)