The frantic efforts to rescue a dozen boys and their soccer coach after a heavy rainstorm flooded the entrance to a popular cave in Thailand were complicated Tuesday by muddy floodwaters as Thai Navy SEAL divers entered the muddy chambers, according to a top official.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told reporters outside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province near the border with Malaysia the rescue efforts hinge on being able to pump out water from the cave.
Rescue efforts so far have been hampered by muddy water, according to Paojinda. Divers can only proceed when enough water has been pumped out to give breathing space. The divers will soon start using special oxygen tanks to allow more time underwater and allow them to work through all hours, according to the Associated Press.
"I want to confirm to the media that the SEAL team will be working nonstop because it's already dark here too," he said. "So night and day doesn't make a big difference. They'll just need to rotate."
Distraught relatives of the members of the soccer team, aged 11 to 16, gathered outside the cave complex and turned to prayers to bring the children home.
Relatives placed fruits, desserts, sugary drinks and sweets on mats near the cave as an offering to the spirits which some people believe protect the cave and the forest, according to Reuters.
“Come home,” cried one distraught mother, according to the news agency. “Mummy is here to pick you up.”
Rain has continued to fall in the area, which has stymied attempts to pump out water from the cave area.
Divers have been seeking a way forward through the chambers of the cave complex, but have been forced to suspend their search several times. The authorities have also been seeking alternative ways in, using helicopters and search parties on foot to find holes that might exist in the ceilings of other parts of the cave.
"We hope that the water level has gone down, but we will have to see," Navy Lt. Naponwath Homsai said Tuesday morning. "Today we will try to find passages under the water that hopefully will lead to other chambers."
The cave complex extends several miles and has wide chambers and narrow passageways with rocky outcrops and changes in elevation. Still, officials have said they are hopeful the boys found a safe space away from the floods.
Namhom Boonpiam, whose 13-year-old son Mongkol is among the missing, told the AP she had been waiting at the entrance since Saturday night.
"I haven't slept and I hope that all of them can come out, all safe and sound," she said. "My son is a strong boy. I still have hope."
Authorities have said footprints and handprints were found inside the cave complex, and that tourists trapped there by past floods have been rescued after the waters receded.
In "The Caves of Northern Thailand," an online guidebook last updated this year, the cave is described as only explorable from November to June due to flooding.
It says the cave has an "impressive entrance chamber" that is about 260 feet long and leads to an easy walk along "spacious passageways" that last for about a half a mile.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.