THAM LUANG CAVE, Thailand—A dangerous rescue mission to free 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach trapped inside a Thai cave for two weeks began on July 8, authorities said, with the first survivor to possibly emerge 11 hours later.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite Navy SEAL unit would attempt to bring the boys—some of whom are as young as 11 and not strong swimmers—through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver earlier this week.
“Today is D-Day,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission, told reporters.
“At 10 a.m. today 13 foreign divers went in to extract the children along with 5 Thai Navy SEALs”.
He said the first boys could emerge from the cave at around 9 p.m. local time.
The rescue mission began after rain showers soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province for the past 24 hours, heightening the risks in what the governor has called a “war with water and time” to save the team.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, went missing with their 25-year-old coach after soccer practice on June 23, setting out to explore the cave complex near the border with Myanmar.
A mammoth response operation—including a medical unit, ambulance, and helicopter for every boy—is waiting outside the cave for the team to emerge.
Narongsak said the boys could start to emerge as early as 9 p.m. on July 8, but that there was “no time limit” and the rescue operation could take a number of days or be halted at any time. According to ABC, the rescue operation could last between two and four days.
An Australian doctor, who is part of Sunday’s rescue mission, checked the health of the boys last night and gave the all-clear for the rescue to proceed, Narongsak said.
— Liam Cochrane (@Liam_Cochrane) July 8, 2018
Weather.com forecast sustained thunderstorms lasting through Sunday and Monday, with further stormy weather expected for around the next two weeks.
To escape, the children must dive through dark, narrow passageways sometimes no more than two-feet wide, that have challenged some of the world’s leading cave divers.
A former member of Thailand’s SEAL unit died during a dive on Thursday night, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as an outing to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys.
Desperate family members have been waiting outside the caves for many days. They have sent handwritten messages with words of love and encouragement to the trapped boys.
“We are not angry at you. Please take good care of yourselves and cover yourself with blankets. It’s cold and we’re worried about you,” one message said, according to ABC.
“Thank you very much for taking care of our children. You went into the cave with our children and you must get out with them. Take our children and yourself out with safety. We are waiting in front of the cave,” another message said.
By Panu Wongcha-um and John Geddie