Rescue workers in Thailand who successfully located the 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave for 10 days are now racing against time to get them out before water levels rise.
Rescuers had earlier suggested that they would wait for water levels to drop, which could take until October, but heavy rains forecast for later this week could flood the cave even further, meaning the boys, ages 11-16, face the prospect of having to move quicker than anticipated.
Teams have been pumping about 2,600 gallons (10,000 liters) of water out of the caves every hour, but have so far only been able to lower the level by 1 centimeter. Water in the cave is about knee-deep but is neck-deep in the chamber, according to the Thai English-language website Khaosodenglish.com.
Anupong Paojinda, the Thai interior minister, has said that the boys might have to learn to dive in order to escape the tunnels, which are so narrow in parts that only one body can pass through at a time. None of the boys knows how to swim and even elite Thai Navy SEAL divers have been finding the ability to navigate through muddy waters difficult.
“As rain is forecast in the next few days, the evacuation must speed up. Diving gear will be used,” he told the Bangkok Post. “If the water rises, the task will be difficult. We must bring the kids out before then.
“Diving is not easy. Those who have never done it will find it difficult, because there are narrow passages in the cave. They must be able to use diving gear. If the gear is lost at any moment, it can be dangerous to life.”
Anmar Mirza, national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission in the U.S. and editor of the book Manual of U.S. Cave Rescue Technique, told the AP that “trying to take non-divers through caves is one of the most dangerous situations possible, even if the dives are relatively easy.”
Diving is not easy. Those who have never done it will find it difficult, because there are narrow passages in the cave. They must be able to use diving gear. If the gear is lost at any moment, it can be dangerous to life
The boys must be safely extracted from nearly a mile of tunnels, most of which are underwater. They could use the same narrow passages out that their rescuers found, but such a task is very dangerous for a novice.
Another option is for rescuers to drill into the chamber and airlift them out. The British Cave Rescue Council, which has members taking part in the rescue operation, estimates that the group are around 1.2 miles into the cave and around 0.6 miles below the surface. But other estimates put the boys as far as 2.5 miles into the caves. An airlift plan would be difficult because the cave stretches under a mountainside for up to 6 miles and varies in elevation.
The final rescue plan will be made by Thai authorities, who say they are committed to “100 percent safety.”
“We worked so hard to find them and we will not lose them,” said Chiang Rai provincial Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn.
The team entered the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province, located in the northern part of the country on June 23 after soccer practice, but became trapped when heavy rains flooded key passages.
British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, described as the “A Team” of rescuers, according to The Daily Mail, located the boys 10 days after they went missing, about 300-400 yards past a section of the cave that was on higher ground and was thought to be where the team members and their coach may have taken shelter, Thai provincial governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said.
They were able to lay a guideline down so that others could follow them and help deliver essential supplies to the group.
When a boy from the team asked when they can exit the cave, a rescuer responded “Not today. You have to dive."
Family members of the boys will be able to speak to their loved ones by phone on Tuesday thanks to a telephone line taken into the cave by SEALS, according to Khaosodenglish.com. The boys are all said to be in a stable medical condition, although some have minor injuries.
Despite the breakthrough, which was received with cheers and smiles from relatives of the boys, as well as euphoria around Thailand, Navy chief, Adm. Naris Pratoomsuwan, said “helping the kids will take time.”
“From the operations center in the third chamber to where they were found, it takes about three hours to get there and three hours to come back,” he said.
The boys were able to survive the harrowing ordeal by drinking the water that fell from stalactite formations.
The boys went missing along with their 25-year-old coach after training on June 23, when they set out to explore the caves in the forest park. Police in Thailand said on Tuesday they will look into whether the coach could be faced with legal action for leading them into the cave.
Fox News’ Travis Fedschun, Chris Irvine, AP and Reuters contributed to this report.