The first schoolboys have emerged from a flooded Thai cave after divers launched a daring and dangerous mission to rescue the children and their soccer coach, who have been trapped underground for more than two weeks.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit are trying to bring the rest of the boys — some as young as 11 and weak swimmers through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver.
The boys and their coach became stranded when they went exploring in the cave after a practice game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and abroad.
‘Operation going better than expected’
The official heading the operation says the operation is going “better than expected.”
Chiang Rai Province’s acting Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn makes this comment a news conference after rescuers extracted four of the boys from the cave where they had been trapped for more than two weeks. Mr. Narongsak says the four were then taken to a hospital. Their condition was not immediately clear.
Mr. Narongsak said the healthiest have been taken out first, and the next phase of the operation would start in 10-20 hours.
Earlier reports by AFP and Reuters quoting an unnamed government official and a member of the rescue team respectively said six boys have been taken out.
Faster rescue operation
The first two boys emerged about nightfall after navigating a treacherous escape route of more than 4 km through twisting, narrow and jagged passageways. They were followed shortly afterwards by four others, leading to an explosion of jubilation on social media in Thailand and around the world as the rescued boys were rushed to hospital.
(When the rescue operation began at about 8.30 a.m. IST, Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission had said he first boys were expected to emerge out of the cave at 7.30 p.m. IST, and it was expected to take three to four days to complete it. But the first rescue happened a good 90 minutes earlier.)
Helicopters pressed into service
After the news of the rescue six boys from the cave, photos of helicopters taking off and landing and ambulances treading the Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park area are coming in. More updates are awaited.
Six exit the cave
Six boys have exited the flooded cave in a dangerous mission that began earlier on July 8, Reuters reports. “I have received information that six have exited the cave”, a senior member of the rescue team told Reuters.
A helicopter flew some of the boys to the nearby city of Chiang Rai where they were taken by ambulance to hospital.
The junior soccer players, who disappeared in the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, were discovered on Monday by British divers in a partially flooded chamber.
News of the survival of the “Wild Boar” team sparked celebrations and relief among Thais transfixed by the drama, following every twist and turn of a search that has drawn worldwide attention and volunteers from Australia to Finland.
The furore provoked plenty of opinions on social media, particularly on a Facebook page called “Drama-addict” that is popular among Thais and has 2 million followers.
Some criticised what they saw as the group’s recklessness.
“There was a big sign outside the cave but they still went in. They should be scolded,” said one person on the popular website Pantip.com.
Others appeared to criticise the team’s assistant coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who went along on the expedition after a soccer practice. But “Coach Ek” had his defenders too.
‘Two more are likely to follow shortly’
The country’s Defence Ministry spokesman said two other boys are expected to follow soon. “Two are out of the cave. Two more are likely to follow shortly,” AFP quoted Lieutenant-General Kongcheep Tantrawanit as saying.
First boys emerge from cave
The first two members of a Thai schoolboy soccer team have been rescued from the flooded cave where they had been trapped for more than two weeks, a local rescue official said on July 8.
Authorities in northern Chiang Rai Province began the dangerous mission to bring out the 12 boys and their coach earlier on July 8.
“Two kids are out. They are currently at the field hospital near the cave,” said Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai's health department and part of the rescue team.
“We are giving them a physical examination. They have not been moved to Chiang Rai hospital yet,” Tossathep told Reuters.
Race against time
Dwindling oxygen levels and forecasts of heavy rain are adding to pressure on authorities working in the rescue mission.
Here's a map detailing the complex route of the cave.
The divers have an arduous task ahead of them as they try to rescue the boys.