A treacherous rescue bid to free a youth football team trapped in a flooded Thai cave entered its second day Monday, with nine of the “Wild Boars” still inside after elite divers guided four out.
Looming rain was one of the main enemies of the operation, threatening to flood the cave complex in mountainous northern Thailand, although a bewildering array of other dangers could also doom the escape plans.
Thais have been fixated on the crisis, hoping desperately for the safe return of the boys, aged from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, since they became trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex on June 23 because of rising waters.
They spent nine days unaccounted for inside the cave, before British divers found the emaciated and dishevelled group huddling on a muddy bank above the flooding.
On Sunday four members of the “Wild Boar” team were successfully brought out from the cave, after authorities decided they had to rush ahead with a rescue operation to beat monsoon rains.
They were guided by expert divers who plotted the hours-long escape through more than four kilometers (2.5 miles) of twisting passageways and flooded chambers.
Rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn on Sunday said four of the team — affectionately dubbed by Thai social media Wild Boars 1,2,3,4 — were “safe” and said the extraction effort would likely resume early Monday.
“We’ve been working continuously overnight,” a Chiang Rai government source told AFP on Monday morning, requesting anonymity, and confirming that there had only been a pause of the actual extraction operations.
However by lunchtime on Monday authorities had given few other others details about the latest developments in the rescue mission.
They had also declined to reveal the identities of the four who had been hauled out.
But speaking in Bangkok, Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said the four pulled from the cave “are strong and safe” and in the care of doctors.
With so few details released, parents continued their agonizing wait to be reunited with their sons.
“I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today,” Supaluk Sompiengjai, mother of Pheeraphat — known by his nickname “Night” — told AFP.
“We heard four boys are out but we do not know who they are. Many parents are still here waiting. None of us has been informed of anything.”
But she added she was “happy” at the prospect of seeing her son again.
To get the remaining boys out, divers will be forced by the narrow passages to accompany them one at a time.
None of the boys have scuba diving experience and experts have warned they could easily panic while swimming underwater in darkness.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscored the danger of the journey even for professionals.
Touching on some of the challenges of the complex extraction, the interior minister told reporters on Monday the rescue team needed adequate rest in between dives and had to replace oxygen tanks along the route.
Rescuers are also in a race against time, with weather forecasters warning heavy rain could hit the area on Monday afternoon and continue through the week.
Authorities have repeatedly said the rain could re-flood crucial parts of the cave complex that have been drained and make the escape route march harder or even impossible to navigate.
Thai premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha was due to visit the rescue operation on Monday.
In the week since the team was found alive, expert climbers, divers and Thai Navy Seals have mulled contingencies ranging from drilling an escape route through the mountain to waiting out the monsoon season and spending months inside the cave.
The saga has stirred reaction from across the world of politics, sport and business, with American tech entrepreneur Elon Musk trailing the idea of dragging the kids free in a purpose-built escape pod to his 22.2 million-strong Twitter following.