The first schoolboys have emerged from a flooded Thai cave after divers launched a daring and dangerous mission to rescue the children and their soccer coach, who have been trapped underground for more than two weeks, a Thai official said.
“Two kids are out. They are currently at the field hospital near the cave,” Tossathep Boonthong, chief of the health department in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, told Reuters. “We are giving them a physical examination.”
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit are trying to bring the rest of the boys - some as young as 11 and weak swimmers – through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
Their ordeal has drawn huge media attention in Thailand and abroad, and getting the boys out safely could be a boost for Thailand’s ruling junta ahead of a general election next year.
“Today is D-Day,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission, 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.
Rescuing them all could take three to four days and depended on the weather, an army commander involved in the mission said.
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.
“If we wait and the rain comes in the next few days we will be tired again from pumping and our readiness would drop. If that’s the case, then we have to reassess the situation,” he said.
An Australian doctor who is part of the rescue mission checked the health of the boys on Saturday night and gave the all-clear for the operation to proceed.
The boys were discovered by British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen on Monday.
Of the 13-strong foreign dive team - mainly from Europe - three were escorting the children, while the remainder were positioned along the dangerous first kilometer stretch, where the boys will have to navigate through submerged passageways in some places no more than two feet (0.6 meter) wide.