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Thais Debate Trying Cave Rescue Soon or in 4 Months

Days after a young Thai soccer team was discovered alive in a flooded cave, rescuers and government officials are puzzling over how to rescue the boys and their coach.

Posted Updated

Muktita Suhartono, Richard C. Paddock
Mike Ives, New York Times

Days after a young Thai soccer team was discovered alive in a flooded cave, rescuers and government officials are puzzling over how to rescue the boys and their coach.

Videos taken by divers have given the outside world a glimpse of the team’s condition. The boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach appeared to be healthy and in good spirits, and divers have been taking them food, medicine and other supplies.

But any rescue will be complicated, and dangerous. Decisions must be made about how, and when, to get the starvation-weakened team back out through treacherous passages of the vast Tham Luang Cave network in northern Thailand, where they have been trapped since June 23. None of the boys have ever used scuba gear, and at least some don’t know how to swim.

On Thursday, the third straight day of relatively little rain at the cave complex raised speculation that Thai officials were considering a hurried evacuation attempt.

But several factors weighed against such a decision. Officials said the boys were still weak, even after a few days of food and medicine. And very basic training for them in how to navigate cramped and flooded passageways, in unfamiliar breathing equipment, had only begun — in anticipation of a hazardous journey that would take hours even if successful.

Narongsak Osottanakorn, commander of the search and rescue operation, said Thai officials were weighing their options as they monitored weather forecasts — some believed a storm was on the way.

“If it rains and the water volume increases, we have to calculate, how much time do we have? How many hours, how many days?” Narongsak said. “If the water increases, we will go back to where we were.”

The boys and their coach are being closely monitored and cared for by Thai navy divers, who are also giving them some training to help them make it through the flooded passageways. One foreign diver who helped find the boys said they did not know how to swim.

Some officials have advocated keeping the group in the cave for as long as four months, until the water level subsides. Others have argued for having experienced divers take them out of the cave complex much sooner. Rescuers have prepared detailed plans and made their checklists, Narongsak said.

“How many sets of equipment needed? Thirteen sets,” he said. “How many people to assist? Two to one, three to one. Everything is planned. The ambulances are ready. But the plan for inside? Not everybody can go in. The hole is very narrow. Those are the obstacles.”

Meanwhile, teams continue to comb the mountain, looking for another way into the cave. But not all has gone smoothly. Narongsak said that one volunteer team had inadvertently pumped water back into the cave. He did not say how much water was misdirected or how long it went on. — Her fields have been flooded, but she approves

Mae Bua Chaicheun, a rice farmer who lives near Tham Luang Cave, wanted to help in the search for the missing boys. So last week, she volunteered for five days at the rescue center, delivering drinking water to soldiers and helping clean up.

When she returned home to her village in the flatlands a few miles from the cave, she found that her fields were flooded with water that had been pumped from the caves in the effort to reach the 12 boys and their soccer coach.

She had already prepared the soil on her 5 acres and was about to plant rice. Now she has to start over.

But she is not concerned about that. Most importantly, the boys were found alive.

When she saw the news that the boys were found, she said she put her hands together in front of the TV and thanked Buddha.

“I had goose bumps,” she said.

She is one of dozens of farmers downstream from Tham Luang Cave whose fields have been flooded by the surplus water pumped out to reduce flood levels in the cavern.

The government is offering compensation to farmers whose land was flooded. In her case, that would have come to about $430, plus seed and fertilizer. But she said she didn’t want to add to the government’s burden in the midst of the search, and did not register.

“I am more than willing to have my rice fields flooded as long as the children are safe,” she said. “The boys are like my children.”

— Divers have experience on other continents

When two British divers first reached the soccer team on Monday, they may have experienced some déjà vu.

The divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, are members of the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team, one of 15 such teams in the United Kingdom. And this isn’t the first time they’ve been flown to another country for a cave-rescue mission.

In 2004, Stanton, a retired firefighter from Coventry, was involved in the successful rescue in Mexico of six Britons who had been trapped in a cave for more than a week — one of the best-known cave rescues in recent history.

According to CoventryLive, a local news site, Stanton helped persuade one of the British men in Mexico, who was scared of water and had never dived before, to make a nearly 600-foot dive as part of the escape.

Six years later, Stanton and Volanthen, an information technology consultant, were flown to France in an attempt to rescue Eric Establie, a climber who had gone missing in a cave. They found his body about 3,000 feet from the entrance.

Queen Elizabeth II later made Stanton a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or MBE, “for services to local government.”

“I was very surprised,” he told a reporter after the award was announced in 2012. “People would say in jest that I should have got an MBE,” he said, adding, “but it’s not something I have really thought about.”

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