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Thailand cave rescue: Massive challenge in mission to rescue trapped boys

A TREACHEROUS flooded passage filled with hazardous bends and next to no visibility is the biggest challenge facing the trapped schoolboys as authorities race to drain water from a flooded cave in Thailand.

The world watches with bated breath while the 12 starved boys and their football coach, who have been stranded for almost two weeks now, are reportedly being trained in how to breathe with scuba equipment as they prepare for a possible attempt at leaving the cave this morning.

However, several diving experts have warned that the mission is extremely dangerous — seeing as none of the boys can swim or ever used scuba gear and the cave’s narrow passageways pose a significant challenge for even the best cave divers.

WATCH LIVE: Thailand schoolboys cave rescue

WATCH LIVE: Thailand schoolboys cave rescue

In particular, a narrow 750-metre flooded stretch of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, which took experienced cave divers around three hours to navigate, poses an ominous obstacle for the unexperienced boys aged between 11 and 16 in the desperate rescue option.

British Cave Rescue Council chairman Gary Mitchell told the BBC that freezing, muddy water is touching the roof of the cave inside the pitch black passage which is extremely narrow — so much so that it is only big enough to fit one person through at a time.

media_cameraThe cave where the boys are trapped

The boys may have to be kitted up with scuba gear and dragged through the dangerous passage while being closely tethered to divers, but then they run the risk of have their life-protecting gear being knocked off as they navigate the its tight crooks and crannies.

As part of a desperate attempt to save the boys, Thai authorities are also trying to suss out whether there could be a secret passage to safety.

This morning, Claus Rasmussen, who is part of the rescue team, said the boys have told divers they heard dogs barking, a rooster crowing and children playing — raising suspicions that there may be a hidden passage to safety from deep within the cave.

SECRET PASSAGE COULD SAVE THE BOYS

According to CNN, the new information now has teams looking at whether there is a chimney or hole they can access instead of trying to get the boys out through the water.

If there does in fact turn out to be a secret passage, it means the rescuers could potentially sidestep the incredibly dangerous crash course diving operation.

media_cameraNone of the boys can swim. Picture: Thai Navy SEALs via Getty Images

Timing is crucial in the complex rescue mission as heavy storms are soon forecast to arrive, which could make it impossible to evacuate the group for months.

A 24/7 draining operation is now in place, but Thai authorities are still understood to be weighing up the best method of extracting the boys. The best option would be to rid the cave almost entirely of water, which would allow the stranded group to crawl 4km to safety, but they would still need to pass through short underwater passages.

However, because of the looming monsoon rains forecast to hit the area later this week, Thai authorities still believe teaching the boys to dive so they can be escorted out of the system by rescue divers, is the most realistic option.

A certified cave diver from the US, said the boys will have to undergo “immediate and intensive training” if they are to stand any chance of exiting the cave alive.

“Normal cave diving requires skills that go beyond what 99 per cent of the world’s divers have ever seen, which is why it is so very hard to become certified to dive in caves,” he wrote in an educational journal this morning. “The diving required in this cave, however, is not normal cave diving, and the rescuers are not normal cave divers.

“The greatest enemy to a diver is panic. Students who are accustomed to the normal mishaps of swimming, like accidentally getting water in the mouth or eyes, will usually have no trouble, but for people with little swimming experience, such a minor event can lead to irrational panic.

media_cameraThe boys may have to be tethered to rescue divers during the operation. Picture: AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung Thu

“Most of the Thai team members are nonswimmers, and the culture there has a common belief that swimming is extremely dangerous. That starts any training in a serious deficit.”

A cave explorer assisting Thai authorities trying to rescue the schoolboys believes “we’ll know in the next 24 hours” if they will survive.

British cave expert Vern Unsworth, who lives in Thailand, said the conditions were getting worse and there was now a narrow window in which the group could escape.

“I think we’ll know in the next 24 hours … We’ll keep our fingers crossed, everybody needs to pray and hope for a good outcome,” Mr Unsworth told the BBC.

Mario Sepulveda, one of the Chilean miners who was trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 made a video message for the boys this morning.

“Hang in there” he told them, appearing dressed in a yellow vest, orange miner’s helmet and headlamp.

He said he was trying to raise funds to travel to Thailand himself and help the rescue effort however he can.

“I’m going to see what’s possible. I’m calling someone from the (Chilean) government to try to get some money together. I think it’s important as a country for us to be there, after what we miners went through,” he told AFP.

“I would love to go. I think it would be extremely important to support the families, give them a hug. Words of encouragement are important.”

media_cameraThe trapped boys went in to write their names on the cave walls.
media_cameraThe cave rescue may begin on Thursday morning before the rains.

“We have to be 100 per cent confident that there is no risk to the boys before we evacuate,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, Chiang Rai provincial governor, told reporters.

“We will take care of them like they are our own children,” he said. The group are being taught how to use diving masks and breathing apparatus, he added, but from the safety of the muddy bank which for now remains their sanctuary.

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

Classmates and friends of the schoolboys also reportedly were near the cave’s entrance singing songs of support.

After a day of sustained pumping efforts, water levels inside the massive cave complex have been reduced and fierce currents have eased, The Australian reports.

However, that was before rain lashed the area yesterday afternoon.

The newspaper reports it has been told that fast-water currents inside the cave have eased to a standstill and with monsoonal rains expected to resume by Friday, conditions for the rescue are as good as they are likely to get.

VIDEO OF LAUGHING BOYS

Despite the imminent danger, the children have appeared in a new video, laughing as they greet the camera to say they are in good health.

The footage, published on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page, runs by 11 of the 13 members of the team, each makes a traditional Thai greeting gesture to the camera before introducing themselves by nickname and saying “I’m in good health”.

Some appeared to be wearing a change of clothes since they were found late Monday and most were wrapped in foil warming blankets.

The reason the boys entered the cave, according to a Dutch diver working in Thailand, was to write their names on the wall as part of an initiation ritual.

MOMENT THE BOYS WERE FOUND ALIVE

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two expert cave divers from Britain, found the group about 300-400 metres past a section of the cave on higher ground that was believed to be where they might have taken shelter.

In the 5-minute navy video, the boys were seen wearing their soccer uniforms and were calm, curious and polite.

media_cameraChilean miner Mario Sepulveda sent a message to the boys. Picture: AFP PHOTO / Mario Sepulveda

They also were keen to get some food. After an initial exchange in which a rescuer determines that all 13 are present, one of the boys asked what day it was, and a rescuer replied: “Monday. Monday. You have been here — 10 days.”

The rescuer told them “you are very strong.” The traditional reserve of Thai children toward adults broke slightly after a while, and one boy told another in Thai, “Tell them we are hungry.”

“We haven’t eaten,” a boy said in Thai, then in English: “We have to eat, eat, eat!” A rescuer assured them that “Navy SEALs will come tomorrow, with food and doctors and everything.” At the end of the video, a boy asked in English, “Where do you come from?”

The rescue diver replied, “England, UK.” Besides the protein drink, Narongsak said they were given painkillers and antibiotics, which doctors had advised as a precaution.

— with wires

Originally published as Secret passage could save boys

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