Thai rescue teams will focus on Thursday on draining as much water as possible from the Tham Luang cave to allow 12 young boys and their football coach to walk and swim out of the six-mile-long underground complex rather than take a perilous scuba dive.
Waters at the cave in Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand, are reported to have dropped by 40 per cent in recent days, and are continuing to fall at a rate of 1cm an hour. However, rescuers fear that approaching heavy rains will undo their efforts and trap the boys inside for another few months.
The search and rescue operation for the boys, aged 11-16, and their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, has drawn experts from around the world, including the UK, US, China, Australia and Japan.
On Wednesday night, British caving expert, Robert Harper, 70 who oversaw the UK diving team who found the boys on Monday, was given a hero’s send-off by the Thai authorities as he departed for Heathrow.
Mr Harper was accompanied by Weerasak Kowsurat, the sports minister, who thanked him for his “dedication to duty and professionalism,” reported the Khaosod English site. The veteran diver was given a local dinner of Tom Yum Goong – Thai prawn soup – before he departed.
A 1,000-strong team is still working around the clock to extract the boys during a rare dry spell in the middle of Thailand’s rainy season.
Thai cave rescue effort | Read more
The hope is that an enhanced draining effort can lower the water levels to a point where there would be headroom along much of the winding exit route, sparing the boys from a frightening underwater escape using scuba apparatus.
However, according to a firefighter working on the draining of the cave, levels of water in parts of a passage leading to the chamber where the boys are sheltering still reach as high as the ceiling, making diving the only way out.
“What we worry most is the weather,” Narongsak Osatanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province told a press briefing on Thursday morning. “We can’t risk having [a] flood back into the cave."
Divers are currently teaching the children how to use scuba gear, and are said to be working on a ‘buddy system’ to accompany the boys out. But fears remain that a child could panic underwater, with deadly consequences.
Tham Luang football team cave rescue
The governor said he asked Thai Navy Seals in charge of extraction plans to estimate what sort of a risk would be involved to take them out and “what kind of readiness we can have today and decide if we can take that chance.”
Mr Osatanakorn has previously said that not all of the 13 survivors may be extracted at the same time, depending on their physical condition. The children, emaciated but generally in good health, are currently being given high-protein drinks to get their strength back after being deprived of food for more than a week.
One of the Navy Seals who spent time with the 13 survivors told local media outlet Sanook that their coach Ekkapol Chantawong was physically the weakest of the group after giving the children all available water and snacks during their ordeal, without nourishing himself.
He praised the young coach for helping the boys to conserve their energy by advising them to lie still as much as possible and for not allowing them to drink dirty flood water from the floor of the cave.
Tham Luang cave rescue options
Meanwhile, efforts are also being made to find possible entrances to the cavern above the boys’ sheltering spot, in the hope of taking them out through the roof.
The authorities are also still trying to install an internet cable to the cave so that anxious parents can talk to their trapped children.
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