Thailand’s government announced early Sunday that divers are mounting a final, decisive rescue operation to free twelve teenage boys and their soccer coaches, trapped in a mountain cave in Thailand.
Four boys — described by rescuers as the “weakest” of the group — emerged from the caves in the care of elite Thai Navy SEAL divers Sunday morning, and were immediately rushed into ambulances and taken to local hospitals. Each of the other eight boys, and their coach, have been assigned a “buddy team” of two elite divers who will guide them on an “hours-long” trek out of the caves.
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Three additional boys are expected to emerge from the caves with their dive teams early Sunday afternoon.
The boys disappeared a little more than a week ago, and were discovered Monday more than two miles deep into a cave system that criss-crosses through Thailand’s steep mountain range. They’d set out to explore a shallow stretch of cave as part of a team activity, but were driven further and further into the mountain by rising water levels as monsoon-like rains filled dry lakes and crevices on the cave path.
Rescuers found the boys huddled on a plateau; the team had climbed to the highest point they could find to avoid rising floodwaters.
By Friday, the situation had become dire: Thai officials are anticipating another monsoon-like storm next Monday, and the boys had to be rescued before then or they could face months underground, blocked off from the cave entrance by water. Divers, who had been vising the boys to provide food and letters from their parents, reported ever-rising water levels, making the trips in and out treacherous, and Saturday, rescuers reported that oxygen levels in the cave had dropped from 20% to 15%.
The United States, Australia, China, and the U.K. were all involved in strategizing with the Thai government over how to get the boys out quickly, as was Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which was on standby to drill holes vertically into the mountain in case rescuers couldn’t get to the boys before the rain.
“Authorities said at a press conference Sunday morning in Chiang Rai province that they made the decision to rescue the boys as oxygen drops and the threat of monsoon rains approaches,” Yahoo news reported. “Due to the length of the journey out of the cave, officials said the first boy was expected to come out at 9 p.m. local time, which is 10 a.m. Sunday Eastern time.”
The effort could take several days, officials added. The trip into the cave to reach the boys will take each team of divers five hours. The trip out, with each boy, will take six. Three of those six hours will involve underwater swimming.
The boys cannot swim, but must navigate several deep cave lakes on the first leg of their journey out, then must wade through mud and chest-deep water on the second. Divers will position themselves in front of and behind each boy as they swim underwater, each holding tie lines and an additional oxygen tank for their charge.
The dives also are not easy; on Friday, the trip claimed the life of an experienced Navy SEAL diver.
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“There are two obstacles, which are water and time,” one of the rescuers said. “We have tried all possible ways to get the boys out, but sometimes we can’t win over nature.”
President Donald Trump trumpeted the United States’ role in the rescue Sunday morning.
The U.S. is working very closely with the Government of Thailand to help get all of the children out of the cave and to safety. Very brave and talented people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2018
Thai officials report that they have an ambulance at the ready for each of the boys, and local hospitals are on standby. If any boy or rescuer is in need of more intensive care, the Thai government has a team of helicopters ready to go.