Elite divers hauled four more young footballers out of a flooded Thai cave yesterday, authorities said, bringing to eight the number saved in a stunning rescue mission but still leaving five others trapped.
“Hooyah,” the Thai Navy SEALs, who have played a crucial role in the against-the-odds operation, said in a Facebook post as they announced that a total of eight members of the “Wild Boars” football team had been rescued on Sunday and yesterday.
Thais have been fixated on the crisis, hoping desperately for the safe return of the 12 boys and their 25-year-old football coach, after they ventured into the Tham Luang cave complex after practice and became trapped by rising waters more than a fortnight ago.
The extraction of the four yesterday followed a similar pattern to the previous day, with the youngsters emerging in quick succession just before nightfall after navigating a treacherous escape route of more than four kilometres (2.5 miles) that included extremely narrow and flooded tunnels.
Although the rescued eight were all presumed to be the boys, aged between 11 and 16, authorities did not reveal their identities nor confirm whether the coach remained inside the cave.
Asked if the remaining five would be shuttled out together, rescue operations chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said it was up to the divers whose meticulous plans, including stashing extra oxygen tanks along the route, are “set for four people, if we bring five we have to change the plan”.
In a late-night press conference he also delivered a message from Thai premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a gruff former general: “The Prime Minister wants this to be a lesson, this should not happen again in Thailand,” Narongsak said.
The saga has dominated global headlines, with the team spending nine days unaccounted for inside the cave, before British divers found them emaciated and disheveled, huddling on a muddy bank above the flooding.
Authorities then struggled to determine the best way to save the “Wild Boars”, with the group stuck on a shelf above the floodwaters in pitch darkness. Among the ideas were drilling an escape route through the mountain, or leaving them for months until the monsoon season ended and the flooding subsided.
But with oxygen levels inside dropping to dangerous lows and the prospect of heavy rains flooding the area completely, authorities decided they had to move quickly and take the group out through the water-filled tunnels.
Narongsak described Sunday’s initial rescue bid as “D-Day” when it was launched, and there were fears that any one of many potential pitfalls could prove deadly.Among these were that none of the boys had scuba diving experience, and that they could easily panic while swimming underwater across twisted passageways in darkness.