Mae Sai, Thailand: Rescuers braced for a long and difficult evacuation for 13 members of a Thai youth football team found alive in a cave nine days after they went missing, as food and medicine was shuttled to them through muddy waters on Tuesday.
The 12 young boys and their football coach were discovered rake thin and hungry on a mound of mud surrounded by water late Monday, ending the agonising search that captivated a nation.
But the focus quickly shifted to the tricky task of how to evacuate them safely from the still-flooded caverns.
Much-needed food and medical supplies — including high-calorie gels and paracetamol — reached them Tuesday as rescuers prepared for a prolonged extraction operation.
The Thai military said advanced preparations were underway to help them out of the waterlogged Tham Luang cave network in Thailand’s mountainous north.
“(We will) prepare to send additional food to be sustained for at least four months and train all 13 to dive while continuing to drain the water,” Navy Captain Anand Surawan said.
He refused to speculate how long they might be trapped, but experts said it could take weeks or even months.
The timeline is key given the region’s incessant monsoon rains.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday afternoon the Thai Navy SEAL team said they were using a cave chamber as an “operations centre” to meticulously plan the evacuation alongside foreign expert divers who have been instrumental to the rescue bid.
As the first footage of the kids spread across social media, jubilation erupted across a country which has been glued to each twist of the massive rescue operation.
“We called this ‘mission impossible’ because it rained every day… but with our determination and equipment we fought nature,” Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said Tuesday.
The boys were discovered at about 10:00pm (1500 GMT) Monday by British divers some 400 metres (1,300 feet) from where they were believed to be stranded several kilometres inside the cave.
Video posted on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page, shows one of the boys asking the rescuers to “go outside”.
In response the British diver says: “No, no not today… many, many people are coming… we are the first.”
– ‘Unimaginable’ rescue –
The harrowing task of getting the boys out is complicated by the fact that they are in a weak state and are not experienced divers.
The rugged and flooded kilometres-long course toward the entrance take a healthy SEAL diver six hours.
If diving proves impossible, there is an outside chance a hole can be drilled into the cave to evacuate them or they will have to wait for waters to recede and walk out.
Relatives led the outpouring of joy at the dramatic discovery of the boys perched on the muddy bank.
“I’m so relieved, though I still don’t have the chance to see him… I want to tell him I’m still here waiting,” Kieng Khamleu, said of her son Pornchai Khamleung inside the cave.
Another parent said he could hardly believe the good news.
“It’s unimaginable. I’ve been waiting for 10 days, I never imagined this day would come,” the father of one of the boys said.
Diving teams prepared telephone lines to lay in the cave to set up phone calls to the boys, the governor said.
The “Wild Boar” team became trapped on June 23 after heavy rains blocked the cave’s main entrance.
Rescuers found their bicycles, football boots and backpacks near the cave’s opening, and spotted handprints and footprints further in — leading them to the spot they were eventually found.
Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand’s longest, winding 10 kilometres (six miles) and is also one of the toughest to navigate — especially in the wet months.
A sign outside the entrance warns visitors not to enter during the rainy season from July to November.