Four of 12 Thai schoolboys were rescued from a flooded cave on Sunday in a daring and dangerous operation to save the children and their soccer coach who have been trapped underground for more than two weeks, Reuters reports.
The operation to rescue the remaining eight boys – some as young as 11 and weak swimmers – and the coach was called off at nightfall until Monday to give the divers time to replenish oxygen supplies and ensure all preparations were complete.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit guided the boys to safety through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
“Today was the best day, the best situation in terms of the weather, the health of the boys, our water management for our rescue effort,” the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told a news conference.
“Today we managed to rescue and send back four children to Chiang Rai Prachanukrua Hospital safely.”
The rescuers needed at least 10 hours to prepare for their next operation, involving about 90 divers in total, 50 of them from foreign countries, he said.
A helicopter flew the four boys to the nearby city of Chiang Rai, where they were taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and abroad, and getting the boys out safely could be a boost for Thailand’s junta ahead of a general election next year.
Bursts of heavy monsoon rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province on Sunday and storms were expected in coming weeks, increasing the risks in what has been 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 on an adventure to explore the cave complex near the border with Myanmar and celebrate a boy’s birthday.
The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days, Narongsak said, and had managed to drain the cave water level considerably, but needed to move fast.
“If we wait and the rain comes in the next few days we will be tired again from pumping and our readiness would drop. If that’s the case, then we have to reassess the situation,” he said.
An Australian doctor checked the health of the boys on Saturday night and gave the all-clear for the operation to proceed.
The boys were discovered by British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen on Monday last week.
Of the 13-strong foreign dive team – mainly from Europe – three escorted the children, while the remainder were positioned along the dangerous first-kilometer stretch, where the boys had to navigate through submerged passageways in some places no more than two feet wide.
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