MAE SUI: Heavy rains forecast for northern Thailand could worsen flooding in a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach are waiting to be extracted by rescuers, possibly forcing authorities to have them swim out through a narrow, underwater passage in the cavern, a top official said today.
The thirteen, who disappeared when flooding trapped them in the cave they were exploring on June 23 after a soccer game, were found by rescue divers late Monday night in the cavern in northern Chiang Rai province during a desperate search.
The effort drew international help and has riveted Thailand.
The boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach were described as healthy and being looked after by seven members of the Thai navy SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave.
They were mostly in stable condition and have received high-protein drinks.
While efforts to pump out floodwaters are continuing, it's clear that some areas of the sprawling cavern cannot be drained, said Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda, a member of Thailand's ruling military junta.
In order to get them out ahead of the bad weather forecast for later in the week, they might need to use diving gear while being guided by professional divers, he said.
Anupong said the boys would be brought out via the same complicated route through which their rescuers entered, and he conceded that if something went awry, it could be disastrous.
"Diving is not easy. For people who have never done it, it will be difficult, unlike diving in a swimming pool, because the cave's features have small channels," he said.
"If something happens midway, it could be life-threatening."
Video released by the Thai navy showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting in a dry area inside the Tham Luang Nang Non-cave above the water as a light held by a rescuer was shone on their faces.
Cave rescue experts have said it could be safer to simply supply them where they are for now, rather than trying to have the boys dive out.
That could take months, however, given that Thailand's rainy season typically lasts through October.
SEAL commander Rear Adm Arpakorn Yookongkaew said there was no rush to bring them out since they're safe where they are.
A doctor and a nurse were with them in the cave.
"We have given the boys food, starting from easily digested and high-powered food with enough minerals," Arpakorn told a news conference.
Having them dive out of the cave was one of several options being considered, "but if we are using this plan, we have to be certain that it will work and have to have a drill to make sure that it's 100 per cent safe," he said.
Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said the health of the boys and coach were checked using a field assessment in which red is critical condition, yellow is serious and green is stable.
"We found that most of the boys are in green condition," he said.
"Maybe some of the boys have injuries or light injuries and would be categorized as yellow condition. But no one is in red condition."
Relatives keeping vigil at the mouth of the cave since the ordeal began rejoiced at the news that their boys and their coach had been found.
"I want to give him a hug. I miss him very much," said Tham Chanthawong, an aunt of the coach.
"In these 10 days, how many million seconds have there been? I've missed him every second.
" Rescue divers had spent much of Monday making preparations for a final push to locate them, efforts that had been hampered by flooding that made it difficult to move through the tight passageways of muddy water.
A pair of expert cave divers from Britain found the group about 300-400 meters (yards) past a section of the cave on higher ground that was believed to be where they might have taken shelter.