Thai Navy Seals raced to train 12 young boys and their football coach how to scuba dive on Wednesday ahead of monsoon rains that could force an emergency evacuation.
They have been trapped in a vast cave complex for almost two weeks, and experts are currently assessing how they will get them out.
Rescue teams are reported to be contemplating a risky rapid extraction, possibly as soon as Thursday, before heavy rains set in, potentially causing further flooding through the already submerged chambers of the six-mile-long cave in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province.
High-pressure pumps worked furiously on Wednesday to drain water from the cave, while Navy Seals stayed with the boys to give them first aid, swimming and diving lessons, and to keep their spirits up.
In a video released on Wednesday, Thai Lt Colonel Dr Phak Lohanchun was applying disinfectant to minor wounds on emaciated boys wrapped in foil blankets inside the cave. “Show me your smile,” he says to one of the younger children, as some of the boys state their name and that they are in good health.
Meanwhile, engineers rushed to lay a fibre-optic cable through the labyrinthian Tham Luang cave to allow the boys to speak to their families for the first time since their ordeal began on June 23.
The measure is viewed as an important psychological booster ahead of either a perilous journey through four miles of underwater passageways, or the prospect of having to sit out the monsoon rains for weeks or even months to allow the floodwaters to subside.
The boys’ camaraderie is also believed to have been an important factor in ensuring their survival so far. Throughout their entrapment, they have been in the care of the assistant coach of their ‘Wild Boars’ football team, Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, who is reported to be “very dedicated” to their wellbeing.
Head coach, Nopparat Kathawong, told The Telegraph that the children were “very close” to each other after training together for years and that they had formed a “successful team” through their love of football.
He had been forced to miss their training session on the day they disappeared as he was performing official duties at his village.
Tham Luang cave rescue options
Mr Kathawong speculated that they may have entered the cave to cool off after being “hot and tired” from their game.
Last week, before their discovery, he expressed regret that he had not been there to help them. “I feel really sad that they’re lost. I can’t close my eyes to go to sleep,” he admitted.
After the elation of the boys’ discovery on Monday evening, by British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, the Thai-led multinational rescue team has been focussed on the safest way to bring the boys home.
According to a report in The Australian, Navy Seals may attempt to bring the boys out on Thursday after good weather on Wednesday allowed fast-water currents inside the cave to ease to a standstill. Conditions were currently as good as they are likely to get, officials told the newspaper.
Engineers are reported to be attempting to widen bottlenecks in the escape route to allow the Seals to accompany the children throughout the journey.
However, diving experts still stress the acute dangers in attempting to extract children, some of whom cannot even swim, in treacherous conditions, with some experts maintaining that the best strategy would be to supply them with food, clean water, and warm clothes inside the cave for the time-being.
Ruangrit Changkwanyuen, a local diver assisting with the rescue efforts told The Telegraph that the level of water on Wednesday was “much better.” But he stressed that the children would have “a lot of techniques to learn” before attempting the dive.
Mr Changkwanyuen was last in the cave on Sunday and described the interior as a frightening place.
“They [the rescuers] are figuring out which option is the best for the kids and diving out is one option. But the possibility is also if they can pump out the water so much that maybe they can dive in a short period and then they float out and then they can walk,” he said.