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‘We Won’t Abandon Them’: Search for Boys in Cave Rivets Thailand

THAM LUANG CAVE, Thailand — Dozens of soldiers and park rangers lined up at the cave’s mouth, carrying in supplies. Teams of navy divers worked their way through submerged passageways in the flooded cavern. The vigil of family and friends outside echoed across Thailand on social media and television.

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Richard C. Paddock
Ryn Jirenuwat, New York Times

THAM LUANG CAVE, Thailand — Dozens of soldiers and park rangers lined up at the cave’s mouth, carrying in supplies. Teams of navy divers worked their way through submerged passageways in the flooded cavern. The vigil of family and friends outside echoed across Thailand on social media and television.

On Wednesday, the fifth day of an intense search for a young soccer team and coach trapped by rising waters inside the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand, there was still no indication where they were.

But the search, spanning more than a dozen government local and national government agencies, continues, along with the hope that they are still alive.

“In whatever part the rescue team and officers play in the mission, I ask them to think of the boys as their own children because they will care so much about them,” the governor of Chiang Rai province, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told reporters at the scene Tuesday night. “We won’t abandon them. We are in this fully.”

Tham Luang is an extensive network of chambers linked by passageways that flood during heavy rains. A sign outside warns visitors that in the rainy months starting in July, it is unsafe to go inside.

From the entrance, a path leads about 2 miles into the cave complex before splitting into two directions, said Vernon Unsworth, a British spelunker who lives in Chiang Rai and has been exploring Tham Luang for more than six years.

At that junction, he said, the path goes about a mile in one direction and more than 4 miles in the other. The trail rises and falls, and many sections are now submerged, said Unsworth, who is helping with the rescue operation.

Footprints and handprints found within indicate that the boys passed the junction before the water rose and trapped them. But the divers have searched many of the chambers without finding any further signs of the group.

The air in the cave is thin, but there are many places where they could have taken refuge that have enough oxygen to sustain them, Unsworth said.

The soccer team, called Moo Pa Academy and made up of boys ages 11-16, practiced as usual on Saturday morning. Afterward, a dozen players and their 25-year-old coach hopped on their bicycles and rode 6 miles to the cavern. They parked their bikes inside the mouth of the cave.

Then the rain started.

One teammate, Songpul Kanthawong, 13, did not go to the cave because he did not have his bicycle with him at practice.

Saturday evening, as worried parents searched for their missing children, someone asked him where his teammates were. The cave, he said.

On Tuesday evening, after days of rain had made the mud outside the cavern thick and deep, the boy was worried. Everyone who lives in the area is aware of the danger, he said.

“They should have known,” he said. “They probably didn’t think the water would come up.” The search has captivated this politically polarized country, prompting an outpouring of hope and support on social media.

“I gave up hope with people in this country before, but today, it isn’t the same,” one Thai Twitter user said. “It makes me realize that this country still has hopes, and a big heart. People in the country dropped their biases and are helping each other. They all help pray for the Moo Pa team to survive. I hope you are safe, brothers.”

Relatives of the missing have been maintaining a vigil near the cave since Saturday, some of them spending nights there despite the rainy weather. Praying, they fill rows of plastic chairs under a temporary shelter. High-level officials come and go, with police escorts.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, whose youngest son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, is 13, was said to be following developments closely. At one point, the king expressed concern through his secretary about traffic congestion and disorder at the scene. His sister, Princess Chulabhorn, donated $15,000 to the effort, Thai media said.

After a night of heavy rain, divers spent Wednesday trying to get through narrow, flooded passageways. The hope was to reach remote chambers where the boys and their coach might have taken refuge.

Irrigation workers began an operation Tuesday afternoon using more than a dozen large pumps and pipes to drain a small lake and make room for water from the cave. And the governor said Wednesday that crews were pumping water out of the cave, but that the water level was still rising.

Teams were searching the rugged mountain above the cave for openings that would give them access.

“There are only two ways to rescue the boys,” the governor said. “Either get them out from above or drain the water out.”

The director general of the national park, wildlife and plants department, Thanya Netithamkul, said searchers had found a vertical shaft that appeared to lead into the cave, and had dropped in food and drinking water in case the group was nearby.

“With all the work, we hope to find them,” he said. “We have to have hope.”

The cave is in Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, near the city of Chiang Rai. The entrance is about 2 miles from the Myanmar border.

The park headquarters is serving as the rescue command center, and it is teeming with people there to help. Hundreds of soldiers were lined up along muddy paths or stood under trees with their units, ready for action.

At the entrance to the cave, soldiers and workers carried in rope, communications equipment, cables and other gear. About 200 people were deployed deeper in the cave in three locations, the complex’s first cavern and two staging areas farther inside, officials said.

“I saw these photos and my eyes are teary,” wrote a Facebook user, Rujira Maneesri, who posted pictures of the rescuers. “Keep fighting. You must be so exhausted. Thais from the whole country are supporting the heroes from our hearts.”

Experts are trying to determine where the water is entering the cave, in the hope of diverting it, but so far they have not able to find the source.

“If we could find the source of the water coming in, we would have a better chance,” said Unsworth, the spelunker. “It could even be in Myanmar for all we know.” Several family members had kind words about the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, and said they were not angry with him. Some saw him as being much like the boys he coached. Officials said he and some of the boys had been in the cave before.

Ekkapol’s aunt, Amporn Sriwichai, said that both of his parents had died and that he had spent more than five years as a novice monk. He lives with his ailing grandmother and has been helping out at a temple, but he does not have a steady job, she said.

“He is a really good boy,” she said. “He is very helpful. He loves soccer.”

Near the cave, a self-described hermit who gave his name as Ruesi Maneechote Sivarthep said he had traveled more than 500 miles to call on local deities to release the team.

“I am praying to the spirits of the mountain to open the way,” he said.

Moments later and a few hundred feet away, a shaman of the Lahu ethnic group, Jakkha Seanlaung, sacrificed a chicken and placed its head on a small bamboo shrine along with offerings of coins, rice, tea, tobacco and soft drinks.

He said he would take the rest of the chicken home, boil it and read the thigh bones to see if the spirits of the mountain, forest and river would answer his prayers and release the group.

“I want to make an exchange,” he said. “This is the way to communicate with the spirits to bring 13 people back.”

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