‘Race against water’ as rain threatens boys in the cave

MAE SAI: Thai rescuers on Thursday said they may be prodded into a complex extraction of 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave if forecast rains hammer the mountainside and jeopardise the rescue mission.
Thirteen sets of diving equipment have been prepared for the team, who have endured 12 nights underground in the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand, a saga that has transfixed a nation and united Thais in prayers for their safe return.
Water is being pumped out from the deluged cave round-the-clock, reducing the flooding by one centimetre an hour.
But with rain forecast to begin on Friday, the Chiang Rai provincial governor helming the unprecedented rescue effort conceded the mission was now “a race against the water”.
“Our biggest concern is the weather. We are calculating how much time we have if it rains, how many hours and days,” Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters, without providing further details.
In a sign of increased urgency, Narongsak said medics and Thai Navy SEAL divers are assessing whether the boys are fit and well enough to be taken out early — apparently softening his instance on Wednesday that “no risk” will be taken with the evacuation.
The prospect of the stranded “Wild Boar” team diving out is fraught with risk.
It takes seasoned cave diving experts around six hours to reach the muddy ledge where the boys are sheltering around four kilometres into the cave.
Many of the youngsters — who are aged between 11-16 — are unable to swim and none have diving experience.
Three days after contact was made with the group, Thai Navy SEAL experts continued to teach them the basics of diving.
But the areas where diving is still necessary are tight and may require the boys to swim through murky waters unaccompanied.
The looming rains have further tweaked anxiety among relatives of the trapped team, who on Wednesday appeared smiling, wrapped in foil blankets and in good health in video footage circulated by the Thai Navy.
“Yesterday I felt hopeful… today I heard the rain is coming,” said Sunida Wongsukchan, great aunt of one of the boys Ekkarat Wongsukchan, 14, who goes by the nickname ‘Bew’.
“I’m very worried.”
In a two-pronged strategy, rescuers are also hunting for a chimney down to the boys, creating a potential second option for evacuation in the event heavy rains force their hand.
They have enlisted the help of bird’s nest collectors from southern Thailand attuned to finding hidden holes on forested cliffsides.
The eight men, whose ages range from the 20s to the 50s, are Thai Muslims from Libong island in Trang province where they climb sheer limestone cliffs and explore crevices and caves to collect the edible nests, a delicacy made from solidified bird spit that can go for hundreds of dollars per kilo.
“One member in our team was watching (the rescue mission) on television and thought ‘how can we help them?’,” Abdulrawheep Khunraksa, leader of the team, said. — AFP