Twelve boys and their coach may remain trapped in a cave in Thailand for at least four months unless they learn to dive, according to Thai authorities.
Otherwise, officials said, rescuers will have to wait for floodwater in the cave to recede to remove the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old soccer coach.
Two British divers discovered the group, who had been missing for 10 days, on a small, dry ledge Monday night.
They had entered the Thamg Luang cave network in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, after playing a match June 23.
The focus is now on providing the group with food and supplies, as well as getting them out.
But that will be no easy task, with the cave full of water and heavy rain forecast. In addition, none of the boys can swim or dive.
“We will prepare to send additional food to be sustained for at least four months and train all 13 to dive while continuing to drain the water,” said Thai navy Captain Anand Surawan.
Engineers have been pumping water out of the cave for a week and by Tuesday were removing 10,000 liters an hour. The action was lowering the water level inside by one centimeter an hour.
The boys are mostly in stable condition and have received high-protein liquid food, officials said.
Video released by the Thai navy showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting on a dry area above the water as a rescuer’s spotlight illuminated their faces.
Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said Tuesday their condition had been checked using a field assessment in which red is critical, yellow is serious, and green is stable.
“We found that most of the boys are in green condition,” he said. “Maybe some of the boys have injuries or light injuries and would be categorized as yellow condition. But no one is in red condition.”
Family members embraced and cheered as they heard their loved ones had been found.
Aisha Wiboonrungrueng, the mother of 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, smiled and hugged her family as news of their discovery spread. She said she would cook her son a Thai omelette, his favorite food, when he returns home.
Divers found the group past a section of the cave on higher ground, which was thought to be where they might have taken shelter.
In a five-minute video, the boys are quiet as they sit on their haunches, legs bent in front of them.
“You are very strong,” one of the rescuers tells them.
Someone asks what day it is, and the rescuer responds, “Monday. Monday. You have been here — 10 days.”
One boy, noticing the camera and hearing unfamiliar words, says in Thai, “Oh, they want to take a picture; tell him we’re hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat.”
The boy then breaks into simple English, saying, “Eat, eat, eat,” to which another voice responds in Thai that he has already told the rescuer.
Narongsak said that in addition to the liquid food, the group had been given painkillers and antibiotics. Doctors had advised providing the medicine as a preventative measure, he added.
Many challenges remain for the rescuers, according to Anmar Mirza, a leading American cave rescue expert. The primary decision is whether to try to evacuate the boys and their coach or to supply them in place.
“Supplying them on site may face challenges, depending on how difficult the dives are,” said Mirza, coordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission. “Trying to take nondivers through a cave is one of the most dangerous situations possible, even if the dives are relatively easy.
“That also begets the question: If the dives are difficult, then supply will be difficult, but the risk of trying to dive them out is also exponentially greater.”
Narongsak said officials had met and agreed on the need to “ensure 100 percent safety for the boys when we bring them out.
“We worked so hard to find them, and we will not lose them,” he added.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha thanked the international experts and rescuers who helped locate the boys for their “tremendous efforts.”
“The Royal Thai Government and the Thai people are grateful for this support and cooperation, and we all wish the team a safe and speedy recovery,” Prayuth’s office said in a statement.
The rescuers had been stymied repeatedly by rising water that forced divers to withdraw for safety reasons. When water levels fell Sunday, they proceeded with a more methodical approach, deploying a rope line and extra oxygen supplies along the way.
Teams have also been working to pump water out of the cave and divert groundwater, while other rescuers focused on exploring shafts above ground that might lead into the cave. Several fissures were found and teams have explored some, though none have led to the group.
Experts in cave rescues from around the world had gathered at the site. An official Australian group has followed a U.S. military team, British cave experts, Chinese lifesaving responders, and several other volunteer groups from various countries.
British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were the first rescuers to reach the group.
Stanton and Volanthen, along with a third Briton, Robert Harper, joined the search operation after the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) was contacted by Thai authorities seeking expert help.
BCRC vice chairman Bill Whitehouse described how Monday’s celebrations that the group had been found quickly turned to the challenge ahead.
“It was euphoria for a moment, and then you draw back and think ‘What do we do?’ — it’s not going to be easy to get 13 people out of a flooded cave,” Whitehouse said.
“There’s space to make your way through, but it is 50/50 underwater over [0.9 of a mile],” he said. “That’s still a lot of diving, and it’s possible it will need a lot of equipment. The question is how much time until the water goes up again.”
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