BANGKOK — Anxiety has replaced the jubilation that gripped Thailand after divers located 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach who have been trapped for 10 days in a cave. Now Thais are mourning the death of a diver helping in the rescue effort and worry that time may be running out for the stranded youngsters.
There’s “limited time” to save the group ahead of heavy rains that are expected to lash the area that incorporates Tham Luang Cave, rescue operations leader Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters who have been camped out near the cave in northern Chiang Rai province. Thailand’s rainy season extends from May or June to October. Rescuers also are worried about falling oxygen and rising carbon dioxide levels, said Narongsak, the province’s former governor.
The sobering news circulated as Thais prepared to honor former Navy SEAL Petty Officer Saman Gunan, a volunteer who lost consciousness and died Friday after delivering oxygen to the partly-flooded cave. Saman, who was 38, is being given a royally-sponsored hero’s funeral in his northeastern home province of Roi Et.
The country was somewhat buoyed by publication of hand-written letters from the boys urging their parents not to worry and telling them they’re well. The coach, 25-year-old Ekkapong Chantawong, also scrawled a note to the parents, apologizing for causing them distress. The letters appeared on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page.
Authorities had contemplated trying to rescue the boys, ages 11 to 16, and Ekkapong as early as Saturday or soon after, provided they were healthy and strong enough and weather conditions permitted. “If today or in a few days, the weather is good or water is dropping, factoring in their health and readiness…we will discuss in great detail if we will be able to bring them out,” Narongsak said.
But he was soon telling reporters the youths were not ready for an all-out rescue effort that would require them to dive to safety. “The boys are not suitable (and) cannot dive,” he said. “We have to try to set the plan and find which plan works best.”
The youths, some of whom could not swim well, have been receiving crash training in diving. But they also are thin and relatively weak from not having eaten for days.
Authorities were holding “serious” strategy meetings to work out the best and quickest way to extract the group from the interior sandy beach where they’re holed up, said Navy SEALs director Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaew. “We hope it will be soonest and we are putting all efforts to work out a way due to the monsoon and the coming rain,” he told The Daily Beast.
A nine-member team of engineers sent by American entrepreneur Elon Musk was due to arrive Saturday and Sunday in Chiang Rai to explore alternatives to a diving rescue operation. One suggestion the U.S. billionaire offered was using either a Kevlar pressure pod or long, inflatable air sock that would penetrate the cave’s narrow passageways, creating a rescue pathway.
“Maybe worth trying: insert a 1m diameter nylon tube (or shorter set of tubes for most difficult sections) through cave network & inflate with air like a bouncy castle. Should create an air tunnel underwater against cave roof & auto-conform to odd shapes like the 70cm hole,” Musk, who studied physics, tweeted Friday from his Twitter account.
In another tweet, he noted that, “There are probably many complexities that are hard to appreciate without being there in person.”
Coach Ekkapong and the members of the “Wild Boar” soccer squad went missing on June 23, when they decided after a soccer match to explore the six-mile cave to mark one of the youngsters’ birthday. Heavy rains flooded the labyrinthine complex, trapping them deep inside and triggering frenzied efforts to find them. On Monday, British divers located Ekkapong and the boys alive, thinner and displaying minor injuries, about 3,300 feet underground. A small team including a doctor and nurse subsequently reached the group, giving them easily-digested food and treating their wounds.
Arpakorn said authorities were continuing to pump water from the cave. They were making progress, he said, but the water was not yet “under full control.” Teams also have drilled 100 “chimneys” into the mountainside in the rescue effort. Narongsak has said teams would need to drill through about 1,970 feet of limestone to reach the group.
The boys and coach sent letters to parents after an attempt to send down a phone to the group failed earlier this week.
“To all parents, the kids are all right now. There are people taking good care of them. I promise I’ll care for them as best as I can. Thank you all for the support. I deeply apologize to the parents,” Ekkapong wrote.
“Dad, Mom, don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Please tell Yod to take me to eat fried chicken. Love you,” wrote 11-year-old Chanin Wibulroongreung, also known as Titan.
“Don’t worry about me. I miss you all, grandpa, uncle, mom, dad and my siblings. I love you all. I’m happy in here. The SEAL team takes very good care of us. Love you all,” wrote Panumat Saengdee, AKA Mix, 13.
Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, nicknamed Bew, wrote: “Dad, Mom, don’t worry about me. I’m gone for two weeks. I’ll help you in the shop every day I’m free. I’ll be back soon.”
Some parents also sent letters to the kids. And Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, the 13-year-old son of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, sent a thank-you card urging the soccer team to stay strong and thanking the rescue teams. The card was handwritten in German. King Vajiralongkorn spends much of the time in Bavaria.
Some 1,000 people have joined the rescue operation, creating, with dozens of journalists, a bustling encampment near the cave, a popular tourist attraction in good weather. Among the temporary residents are military officers and soldiers, police, SEALs, government officials, and foreign and Thai volunteers—including massage workers.
By this weekend authorities limited the number of people going in and out of the operations area, including media, saying the crush was hampering rescue efforts.