MAE SAI, Thailand – Divers have begun the third phase of the rescue of a youth soccer team trapped more than two weeks in a flooded cave in northern Thailand and aim to bring out the last four boys and their coach Tuesday, the top rescue official said.
The eight boys brought out by divers over the previous two days are in "high spirits" and have strong immune systems because they are soccer players, a senior health official said. Doctors were being cautious because of the infection risk and were isolating the boys in the hospital.
Chiang Rai Gov.Narongsak Osatanakorn said Tuesday's rescue operation began at 10.08 a.m. and involves 19 divers. A medic and three Thai Navy SEALs who have stayed with the boys on a small, dry shelf deep in the flooded cave will also come out, he said.
"We expect that if there is no unusual condition ... the 4 boys, 1 coach, the doctor, and 3 SEALs who have been with the boys since the first day will will come out today," he told a press conference to loud cheering.
Nargonsak said this phase may take longer than the previous two rescue missions, which both lasted several hours.
At a news conference, Jedsada Chokdumrongsuk, permanent secretary at the Public Health Ministry, said the first four boys rescued, aged 12 to 16, are now able to eat normal food. Two of them possibly have a lung infection but all eight are generally "healthy and smiling," he said.
"The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems," Jesada said. "Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them."
It could be at least seven days before they can be released from hospital, Jesada told a news conference.
Family members have seen at least some of the boys from behind a glass isolation barrier, and Jesada said doctors may let the boys walk around their beds Tuesday.
It was clear doctors were taking a cautious approach. Jesada said they were uncertain what type of infections the boys could face "because we have never experienced this kind of issue from a deep cave."
The second group of four rescued on Monday are aged 12 to 14. Four boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach remain deep in the cave, an ordeal that has lasted more than two weeks after they were trapped inside by floods.
Four ambulances and a convoy of other vehicles arrived at the cave site Tuesday morning as rains hit the region.
Monday's rescue effort took about nine hours, two fewer than the day before, in a sign of growing confidence and expertise. Each of the rescued boys has been guided through the dark winding cave by a pair of divers.
This story has been updated with correct title and first name of health ministry official.