With more rain coming, rescuers in northern Thailand are racing against time to pump out water from a flooded cave before they can extract 12 boys and their soccer coach with minimum risk, officials say.
Rescuers in Thailand continued on Thursday pumping water out of the tunnels of a flooded cave complex in a bid to lower the water levels in the tunnels to help with the extraction of 12 boys and their soccer coach.
But the meteorological department warned on Thursday that up to 60 percent of the country's north, including Chiang Rai, can expect heavy rain from July 7 to July 12.
A firefighter who has been working on draining the water said levels in parts of a passage leading to a chamber where the boys and the coach were found on Monday after going missing for 10 days was still flooded all the way to the ceiling, making diving the only way out.
"What we worry [about] most is the weather," Chiang Rai provincial governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters.
"We can't risk having the flood back into the cave."
He said rescuers will be mobilised to search for other possible access points to the cave.
"We are calculating the position of the children and the corresponding position on the surface," the official told reporters and said they were looking "for shafts or holes that may be of use."
Not all boys may be extracted at the same time
Osottanakorn said he asked Thai navy SEALs in charge of extraction plans to estimate what sort of a risk would be involved to take them out and "what kind of readiness we can have today and decide if we can take that chance."
He said earlier that not all 13 may be extracted at the same time depending on their condition.
The children have started crash courses in swimming and diving to prepare for their rescue.
A group of 10 soldiers, led by a military doctor, provided food and medicine to the trapped footballers. The doctor also assessed their health.
Heavy rains expected in next two days
The dramatic search and rescue operation for the junior soccer team who disappeared in the cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, had seemed to be nearing an end when a team of British and Thai divers found the boys late on Monday, clustered on small, muddy bank in a flooded chamber.
But attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometres of dangerously flooded tunnels.
Officials have said they prefer to get the boys out as soon as possible because heavy rain is expected to start by Saturday, which almost surely will raise water levels again in the cave, making passage in some areas even more difficult if not impossible.
They are hoping that an upgraded draining effort can lower the water level in an area where it is still at the ceiling or just about.
The idea is to get some headroom so the boys would not be reliant on scuba apparatus for a long stretch and could keep their heads above water.
Authorities said the boys, who appeared skinny but in good health in several videos released by the Thai navy, were being looked after by seven members of the Thai SEALs, including medics, who were staying with them inside the cave.
A 'new life'
Kian Kamluang, whose 16-year-old son, Pornchai, is in the cave, said she had thought there was a 50 percent chance that her son would be found.
"It's like he has been given a new life," she said, adding that she'll never let her son go into a cave or near water again.
While efforts to pump out floodwaters are continuing, some Thai officials have indicated that heavy rains forecast for this weekend could force them to decide the boys should swim and dive out using the same complicated route of narrow passageways through which their rescuers entered.
Authorities said they were still exploring other options, such as scouring the mountainside for other ways into the cave and finding faster ways to pump water from the cave.
Cave rescue experts have said it could be safest to simply supply the boys where they are for now, and wait for the water to go down. That could take months, however, given that Thailand's rainy season typically lasts through October.
Experienced divers are wary of taking out the boys through the dark and dangerous waters still in the cave, especially since they are untrained.
"We are talking kilometers of transport under the water with zero visibility," said Claus Rasmusen, a certified cave diving instructor based in Thailand who has been helping Thai SEAL team with logistics.
He said it was awkward, but possible, to teach them minimal skills.
"Nobody will teach anyone a full cave course, but trying to get them comfortable with masks, with the breathing, [is] completely different," he said.
"Creating an environment that can make them safely get away, that's feasible."
Rescue team to decide on extraction
Kobchai Boonarana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, said it was up to the rescue team in the cave to decide whether and when the boys would be strong enough to tackle the journey out.
"Their conditions, we can see that their morale is good but what about their strength and their ability? That's up to the team inside to decide," Kobchai told reporters on Thursday.
"Our job is to keep pumping out water, and it is up to the team inside to assess the safety level and whether the kids can travel safely through," he said.