Four of 12 Thai schoolboys were rescued from a flooded cave on Sunday as divers launched a daring and dangerous mission to free the children and their soccer coach who have been trapped underground for more than two weeks, officials said.
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.
As night fell, the operation to rescue the remaining eight boys - some as young as 11 and weak swimmers - and their coach was called off until Monday morning.
“Today we managed to rescue and send back four children to Chiang Rai Prachanukrua Hospital safely,” the head of the rescue operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told a news conference. “... It’s a big success of all teams. We have thousands of people helping us with the operation.”
The rescue teams now 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 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.
“Today is D-Day,” Narongsak had earlier told reporters.
Bursts of heavy monsoon rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in northern Chiang Rai province on Sunday and storms were expected in the 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 water level in the cave considerably, but needed to move fast.