MAE SAI, Thailand – It could have been him, too, trapped in that dark flooded cave.
Songpol Kanthawong, 13, hasn’t been able to shake off that thought since June 23, when his teammates went missing. He is part of the same soccer team, the Moo Pa or Wild Boars, whose coach and 12 members went exploring a vast cave complex in northern Thailand when rains hit, trapping them there for 12 days and counting.
“My mother came and picked me up right after practice,” said Pone, as he is known, sitting outside a stuffy classroom at the Mae Sai Prasitsart school, where six of the 12 boys also study. “It makes me very freaked out to think that I could have gone with them.”
Pone and other classmates of the boys describe them as adventurers who loved riding their bikes around the Doi Nang Non mountain range. They were not unfamiliar with the six-mile Tham Luang cave system, one of Thailand‘s longest, having visited it several times.
Thai authorities and a team of international experts, who hail from countries as far away as Britain and China, continue to deliberate the best way to extract the boys and their coach, none of whom can swim. The drama has riveted the country and much of the outside world, prompting heated coffee table discussions and social media chatter all over the world on ways the boys can be extracted.
In a news conference at the rescue site Thursday, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn said that rescuers and divers were racing against the clock, trying to pump enough water out of the cave so that the boys can make their way out to safety. Though the weather has been relatively dry, water continues to seep into the cave, even as water levels have fallen by about 16 inches (40 centimeters).
A family member prays before a shrine in the Tham Luang cave area as rescue operations continue for the 12 boys and their coach trapped at the cave in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on Thursday. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images) “We were racing against time before we found them. Now we’re racing against water that keeps seeping into the cave,” he said.
On Thursday night, dozens of Navy SEALS arrived with oxygen tanks, raising the prospect either of an imminent rescue – or that the boys are low on oxygen. A representative for the Navy declined to comment.
[ Anxiety grows in Thailand as trapped boys are being given diving lessons ]
The rescuers’ main mission is to continue to pump out water, he added, before heavy rains complicate their efforts. If the boys are not extracted within days, there’s a chance that monsoons could trap them in there for months, with fewer options for a rescue. Experts worry, however, that the boys may be too weak to make the five-hour journey out of the cave, and may panic in their diving gear while making their way through the pitch-black, muddy water and narrow passages
“Everyday, we are analyzing the weather reported by the meteorological department and seeing how much rain will fall,” the governor added.
It will take 11 hours to reach the boys and get them back out to dry land, Narongsak said, and communication would have to hold up the entire time to make sure the rescue goes smoothly.
Authorities have tried to extend phone lines into the boys’ cave chamber, but the phones fell into the water, preventing any communication so far with the impatient families camped out at the rescue site.
The Thai armed forces has made preparations for their eventual return. Helicopters are standing ready at a nearby field to extract the boys who most urgently need medical attention, and ambulances have been parked at the site.
Outside, Pone described the fateful day, which started out like any other with soccer practice. He whipped out his phone to show the last message from his 14-year-old teammate Ekarat Wongsukchan, who is now in the cave.
In the video he sent, the boys are in the same the red and blue T-shirts they were wearing when they were found Monday by two British divers, looking carefree as they ride their bikes around Mae Sai‘s quiet streets.
The skies were relatively clear then, he said, but an hour later a downpour began – leading to the flash floods that have trapped the boys deep in the cave system, so far in that it took divers over five hours through snaking, narrow passageways to reach them.
“Before that rain, there was nothing. It was just a normal day,” he said.
Now the trapped boys are being taught how to dive – quite a feat considering none of them even know how to swim.
[ Young Thai soccer players trapped in flooded cave are in good shape, but getting them out will be a challenge ]
“There is zero visibility. It is a confined space,” said Matt Fitzgerald, a member of the Australian Federal Police dive team, which has deployed six divers to help with the rescue effort. “It would be terrifying” for them.
Thai authorities say the boys do not have to be brought out together, raising a scenario where a few boys could be brought out at a time, depending on who among them was strong enough. Drilling an opening in the cave is also an option, officials say, pointing out that the boys are breathing so there is probably a shaft somewhere within the system
At least 20 Thai army teams have been scouring the mountain range for a possible opening, an army official said, declining to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media
At a church near the boys soccer field – now occupied not by their laughter and shouts of joy, but two military helicopters – army officials were studying maps of the region, deliberating possible avenues for drilling.
At the Mae Sai Prasitsart school, daily prayers continue for the trapped boys and their coach. The rescue operation has been accompanied by Buddhist rituals, including blessings from prominent monks. On Wednesday evening, family members of the boys were presented with framed photos of the Thai king by local authorities, a gesture that was hoped would give them strength and resilience.
Pone is looking forward to the day his friends are free, he said, so he can update them on World Cup results. Before his phone would buzz with every goal scored but now it has been flooded instead with messages of goodwill and support for the team on their group chat app – messages that they, of course, have not yet been able to read.
“The messages now don’t talk about the World Cup, just about how much we miss our friends,” he said. “We are trying to support each other, and to remind each other that this will all be resolved.”
Jittrapon Kaicome contributed to this report.
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