A Navy Seal team, a remote controlled submarine, two heat-seeking drones and a British caver have all been deployed in a race against time to rescue 12 teenage members of a youth football team and their coach, trapped in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, have been missing since they decided to explore Tham Luang Nang Non caves, a popular tourist attraction in Chiang Rai province near the border with Burma, on Saturday.
The search to find them has been hampered by flood waters rising up to 7m inside the cave’s chambers due to Thailand’s rainy season.
As the team’s anxious parents gathered outside the cave, electricians worked through the night to extend a 900m power cable inside the cave to provide light and ventilation for rescue divers. British caver Vern Unsworth, who has been inside the cave many times, also reportedly joined the search along with six Thai civilians with experience of the cave.
The boys’ bicycles, backpacks and football boots still lay where were the boys entered the complex, next to a makeshift campsite where their parents waited, reported the Bangkok Post.
Some relatives kneeled down and prayed, while others performed a ritual calling out for those who were missing, the paper reported.
“My son, come on out! I am waiting for you here!” cried one mother.
Namhom Boonpiam, whose son Mongkol, 13, was among the group, said she had been waiting at the entrance since Saturday night.
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“I haven’t slept and I hope that all of them can come out, all safe and sound,” she said.
The caves are generally considered off limits during the rainy season, which runs from June to October.
However, the authorities said that footprints and handprints were found inside, and that tourists trapped there by past floods have been found alive after the waters receded.
Officials hope that the team and their coach have been able to take shelter in dry spaces within the vast underground complex. After days of searching, yesterday officials said they had found a previously undiscovered opening in a section of the cave that they would attempt to helicopter rescuers and food into.
Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda said that divers could proceed only when enough water has been pumped out so there is breathing space between the water and the ceiling. The divers will also soon start using special oxygen tanks that provide longer diving times, he said.
"We are still optimistic that they are all alive," said Prawit Wongsuwon, the deputy prime minister said. "Even though they may not have anything to eat, they should have water to drink."