Swim for your life: Students trapped in Thailand cave are being taught to swim and scuba dive ahead of rescue attempt
The students trapped in a cave in Thailand will be trained to swim and scuba dive in the next couple of days before they start the grueling four-hour journey to the surface
Twelve members of a boys’ soccer team and their coach who were found alive nine days after being trapped deep inside a cave in the northern part of Thailand on Monday. The group has since been the focus of a search-and-rescue operation ever since the boys and their coach went into the cave complex after soccer practice on June 23 and were caught inside by rising floodwaters. The cave is a popular tourist spot and a sign outside warns that it is unsafe to go inside in the rainy months starting in July.
Reports emerged on Wednesday that the students and their coach will be trained to swim and scuba dive in the next couple of days. Having no previous experience in water, the boys need to be taught to dive so they can make their way out in a grueling four-hour journey to the surface.
Officials leading the rescue faced a dilemma whether to keep the trapped team in the pitch-black cave for up to four months, until the water level lowered, or teach them how to dive and guide them through the murky passages in the cave network, which they allegedly entered as part of an initiation ritual.
With the water levels rising, the officials have decided to go ahead with the rescue mission. The rescue operation will be advised by British cave explorer Vern Unsworth who has said that it will only become clear within the next 24 hours if the boys are likely to survive the direful ordeal.
On Monday, British divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton found the youngsters, aged 11 to 16, along with their coach, 25, nine days after they were reported missing in the Tham Luang cave network in north Thailand.
In the next three days, heavy rains were forecast in the area which could cause a severe deluge in the passages, cutting off the boys from food and other supplies. Left with no choice for survival, the team has taken the "unbelievably dangerous" option to escort them through water that has been compared to "cold coffee" in order to reach the cave entrance.
The only chance the boys have for survival is to swim out through the flooded underground network, according to Anupong Paojinda, the Interior Minister. He said that the diving lessons would commence either on Wednesday or on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Paojinda said: "There are no other options besides getting them out through the flooded passages."
Unsworth further strengthened his point by maintaining that the next 24 hours is either make or break for the embattled team. During a conversation with BBC on Wednesday, he said: "The main thing is to try to get the children to safety. We have to keep hoping."
"The water levels are rising, we had a lot of rain overnight. I think we'll know in the next 24 hours [whether they'll survive]. We'll keep our fingers crossed - everybody needs to pray and hope for a good outcome."
Speaking of the cave conditions, he added: "The temperature is fine, it's not a problem. The water levels have continued to rise and the water temperature is very cold. The last 12 hours have caused a lot of problems."
The operation would only commence when the youngsters are mentally prepared and physically fit to take up the gargantuan task ahead of them, said Thai Navy Seal Chief Admiral Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew, who has vowed to reunite the 12 boys with their parents.
He said: "Anyone who is ready first will be brought out. They will be brought out gradually. Safety is the priority. The first plan is to reduce the water level and get them out. But, if we can't, we will have a backup plan. It may be four months, one month or one week. There's no need to hurry."
The governor of Chiang Rai province, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said that, while there will be no rescue mission on Wednesday, an attempt will be made sometime later this week.
On Wednesday morning, a rehearsal for evacuation of the 12 boys from the dreaded Tham Luang cave was carried out by experts. During the practice session, soldiers from the Thai Army rehearsed chaperoning the youngsters to a temporary hospital that has been set up near the entrance to the cave network.
Civilians who volunteers to pose as the stranded footballers were escorted to the triage area for a thorough clinical examination. The representative team was subsequently moved to a hospital in Mae Sia after traversing down the muddy mountain track in a simulation of the actual plan.
How it all started
The twelve blokes and their soccer coach went missing after the coach took the boys to the cave complex after a practice match on Saturday, June 23. A search was set off only after a mother reported that her son did not return from practice that day. The group was trapped in the cave due to rising water levels and the authorities planned to pump out the water so that water levels go down and the divers have enough room to operate.
The situation was dire, considering that the muddy water had filled some chambers of the large cave right up to the ceiling, leaving the Navy SEAL divers seriously handicapped. The search had to be suspended multiple times due to the alarming levels of water.
Once the water would be pumped out enough to make space between the ceiling and the water surface, divers would use special oxygen tanks with longer diving times to facilitate the rescue mission.
One of the SEAL divers claimed that the water was so muddy that, even with lights, they could not see where they were headed underwater, and hence it was imperative for them to be able to lift their heads above water as much as possible.
"The SEAL team will be working nonstop because it's already dark here too," Paojinda said. "So night and day don't make a big difference. They'll just need to rotate."
Authorities were seeking a number of alternative ways to find possible holes in the ceilings of other parts of the cave but had to suspend their search several times.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a ray of sunshine amid the deluge, explorers found two fissures in the rock on the mountain in which the cave was located. However, upon evaluation, experts found neither could be used as a "chimney" to access the cave.
That night, there was a spell of heavy rain, making it even more difficult to explore the insides of the cave. That being said, the chambers around the entrance are relatively dry. In order to provide light and ventilation to the divers, a power line was extended half a mile along with communication lines into the cave.
"We hope this will provide lights for work and fans for ventilation for the SEAL team," Chiang Rai, Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn, said. "Also, it means we can use electric engines to pump water out of the cave as well."
On Tuesday morning, the relatives of the missing team performed a traditional ritual calling for their health and safety. While two relatives held fishing nets to symbolize fishing out the "lost spirits" from the cave, they were accompanied by drums and gongs to complete the ritual. The ceremony was a longstanding tradition intended to show support for the troubled families and relatives, said Jiratat Kodyee, who organized it.
Tents were set up outside the entrance to the cave where parents waited overnight as the rain poured, hoping to see their children soon. One of the tents housed medics who would be ready to respond at the drop of a hat. One could see backpacks, soccer cleats, and bicycles left behind by the boys before they went in standing in the rain.
On Monday evening, some of the relatives walked inside the cave entrance, desperately shouting to the boys. "Where is my child?" a mother cried. Another shouted: "My son, come on out! I am waiting for you here!"
Tourists who were earlier trapped inside the cave complex have been rescued in the past after the waters receded, authorities said.
Tourists are warned not to explore the cave during the rainy season from June to October as it floods severely during the period. The cave network cuts into a mountainside near the country's border with Myanmar.
Is it possible for the boys to dive out?
It would be an extremely difficult task, considering the boys have no prior experience in swimming or in scuba diving. The prospect looks bleaker when you consider the fact that they are in a weakened state with barely any nutrition, fresh air, or water in the past week.
Being one of Thailand's longest cave networks, the Tham Luang extends for a staggering six miles and is difficult to navigate through with its narrow and winding corridors.
To appropriately state the gravity of the situation, it takes a healthy and skilled Navy SEAL diver over six hours to complete the trip, which is riddled with narrow passageways clogged with mud.
The boys would be trained to use critical diving gear only after they are rehabilitated with food, water, and medical assistance, officials said.
Anmar Mirza, the coordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission, told AFP that the mission would be a daunting task. "Cave diving is a very technical skill and it's extremely dangerous, especially for an untrained diver," he said. "So they may end up being better off trying to supply them in the cave until they can be gotten out by other means."
Bill Whitehouse, who is a part of the British Cave Rescue Council, said the footballers would most probably be guided in "packages" and not all at once. In a conversation with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "In other words you fit them with diving equipment: a full face mask, instead of having a gag in your mouth like a lot of divers use; package them up; put the correct weights on them so that they are neutrally buoyant and are not going to get stuck again."