BANGKOK – Divers have rescued four of the 12 schoolboys trapped with their soccer coach in a huge cave in northern Thailand for more than two weeks, in a daring and risky operation that officials say exceeded all expectations.
The four were flown by helicopter Sunday night to a nearby hospital where they were being evaluated and treated. Officials identified the boys as Nattawut Thakamsong, 11, Prajak Sutham, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Lompiangchai, 16.
“The 16 days of waiting has now reached a point where we can see the boys’ faces,” a smiling rescue operations chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters at a Sunday night press conference. “Four are confirmed and delivered safely to hospital.”
Authorities are unsure when they will attempt to rescue the rest of the group, saying it depends on when weather and cave conditions are “stable.” Heavy rain is likely over the next few days in the country, which is in the middle of its rainy season. Rain already was pelting parts of the area near Tham Luang Cave, in Chiang Rai province, Sunday night.
“We have used all the oxygen that we had laid down,” Narongsak told reporters. “We will have to lay down some more oxygen” for the next phase. “[We] will evaluate today’s operation and decide how to proceed. But we want to do it as soon as possible.”
The next rescue operation likely will run 10 to 20 hours, he added.
The boys were brought up from some 3,000 feet underground in a dramatic, carefully planned operation that authorities launched at 10 a.m. Sunday. Authorities used a guide rope and assigned two divers to each youngster, one in front and one behind. The riskiest moments came when passageways were too narrow to permit two people to pass—and each boy had to move forward on his own. The boys were equipped with full-face masks, but not scuba equipment. Emergency oxygen tanks were placed every 80 to 100 feet along the escape route. Ten divers, three assistant divers and five Thai Navy SEALs helped the youths.
Rescue crews had projected that they might see at least one boy by 9 p.m., but the first emerged at 5:40 p.m. The others came out, successively, at 6 p.m., 7:40 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. The rescue operation was five times quicker than anticipated, Narongsak said.
“We had a plan based on the weather, the boys’ situation and water levels in the cave, and we ended up having the best situation,” Narongsak said.
Officials decided to launch the rescue effort after they determined there was “limited time” to act before expected heavy rains descended on the area. They also had been concerned about falling oxygen and rising carbon dioxide levels in the cave. One former Navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, 38, died Friday after delivering oxygen to the partly-flooded cave.
Some experts were not sure all the boys, ages 11 to 16 and weak from near-starvation for more than a week, would be able to dive to the surface. They and their coach, who is 25, went missing June 23 and were located last Monday.
“I give the boys a lot of credit to dive it,” said Lawrence Davis, a Thailand-based diving teacher. “Even I who teach regular recreational diving in the sea, get chills thinking about the stress, and how scary it must be for these boys who only three or four days ago learned the basics about diving.”
Davis, who is American, said diving involves “stepping out of your comfort zone and going into a whole new world.” Cave diving, he told The Daily Beast, “is a whole other world in which you require a lot of knowledge and you have to be able to cope psychologically.”
Thai authorities are already contemplating how to address the mental health of the boys, who experts say are likely to experience everything from short-term depression to post-traumatic stress disorder,
The youths will have to have a “mechanism for rehabilitation” that includes prayer and meditation, says Dr. Yongyud Wongpiromsarn, a consultant to the mental health department in the Ministry of Public Health.
“All the boys must already feel guilty about this situation,” he told The Daily Beast “We need to let them know that it’s not their fault.”
Davis, the American diver, said the boys have already shown resilience. “People faced with extreme circumstances tend to be able to do extraordinary things for survival,” he said.