A youth soccer team has been stuck in a cave in Thailand since June 23 has finally been rescued.
The 12 boys and their assistant coach first entered the cave after practice on June 23 and it wasn’t until nine days later, on July 2, that rescue teams first made contact. Though that news was met with relief around the globe, since then, all eyes have been on efforts to bring them home, safe and sound.
Crucial next steps
After the team was found — roughly 400 meters away from the Pattaya Beach chamber where divers hoped to find them — the search operation became a rescue operation, but with the same challenges.
Getting the team out of the chamber involved pumping water out of the chamber. Thai Navy seals are also pumped oxygen down into the chamber.
"We will drain all water out from the cave then we will take all 13 people out of the cave. We are now planning how to send (a) nurse and doctor inside the cave to check their health and movement. We will work all night," Osottanakorn told reporters after the team was found.
First, however, a priority was getting the team medical assistance and food, provided they can eat after not having anything for 10 days.
"Now we have given food to the boys, starting with food that is easy to digest and provides high energy," Thai Navy Seal Chief Rear Adm. Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew said at a news conference. "We have taken care of those boys following the doctor's recommendation. So do not worry, we will take care of them with our best. We will bring all of them with safety."
Draining the water was really the only choice available to rescue workers. Edd Sorenson, a regional coordinator in Florida for the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery Organization, told BCC News that any other way is dangerous, especially in this situation.
"Having somebody in zero visibility that's not familiar with overhead environment and that kind of extreme conditions, it's real easy and very likely that they would panic, and either kill themselves and or the rescuers," he said.
"So at this point, you know, I think they would be better off bringing in food, water, filtration systems, oxygen if the air space needs it and requires it, and at least they have lights and hope now, so I think waiting it out, as long as they can get supplies in there to make them comfortable and warm and fed and hydrated."
Authorities said diving would be one of the last resorts due to the narrow passageways that are difficult to maneuver and whether or not the boys can (or are strong enough) to swim.
However, the Navy had to reassess their plans after oxygen levels dropped 15 percent to dangerously low levels. "We can no longer wait for all conditions (to be ready) because of the oppressive situation," Thai Navy SEAL chief Rear Adm. Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew told journalists on July 6. "We originally thought the young boys could stay safe inside the cave for quite a long time but circumstances have changed. We have limited amount of time."
Miraculously just two days later, four boys successfully made it out of the cave with a team of experienced divers guiding them the entire way. Four more boys were rescued the next day, and the remaining boys and assistant coach were rescued the following day. The divers had to hold the boys' oxygen tanks when they swam through the narrow passageways. Once through the passageway, a team of specialists escorted them through the rest of the cave where the water levels were low enough for them to wade through. Authorities said the boys and coach are all in stable condition.
Search and rescue teams were also exploring the surrounding areas to see if there are other possible entry points to the chamber where the coach and boys are. "We are drawing our jungle trekking resources together. There are about 20 to 30 teams," Osottanakorn said. "Now we are going to walk around that area to search every inch, [to see if] there are chimneys or holes where we can climb down, and we may adjust our plan."
In the race against time, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he was sending a team of engineers to assist the Thai government. "He may provide services for location tracking, water pumping or battery power," read a statement from the government. Musk also shared videos on Twitter of a metal pod he calls a "kid-sized submarine" that is light enough to be carried by two divers, can fit through narrow areas and safely transport the boys. The pod arrived in Thailand on July 9, but Osotthanakorn told reporters the pod was "not practical" for their mission.
Possible health effects from the cave
The team is recovering at a local area hospital. Osotthanakorn said they are healthy, alert and hungry. However, the boys and coach are currently under quarantine due to the potential exposure to diseases.
"The next step is to make sure those kids and their families are safe because living in a cave has a different environment which might contains animals that could transmit any disease," a hospital statement said. The boys have to be in quarantine for a minimum of one to two days before loved ones may visit them. Then, visitors still have to wear protective clothing and stand at least two meters away from them, reports CNN.
A complicated cave and situation
Tham Luang cave's entrance area is an impressive sight, and it's completely safe. The cave system itself, however, is a sprawling one, stretching for some 6 miles (10 kilometers), according to the Bangkok Post. The system is filled with narrow passages and large chambers that stretch through the mountain, Doi Nang Non, which borders Thailand and Myanmar.
So, it's very possible to explore these passages and chambers — but the timing matters. The cave's entrance forms the vertical portion of a T-junction intersection. Going left or right leads hikers through some narrow passages, which isn't always an issue. But when monsoon season begins (as it does every June), these narrow passages become flooded. It's believed that the team became stranded after one such storm, and continuing heavy rains have made it impossible to retrace their steps.
Rescue workers work on a water pumping machine at the entrance of Tham Luang Nang Non cave on July 2. Their goal was to pump out the cave's water in an effort to reach the stranded youth soccer team. (Photo: Linh Pham/Getty Images)
"Divers are in dark areas that are not flat and there's mud and rocks everywhere," Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told the Post prior to a team finding the team. "Therefore, for the [Thai Navy] SEAL team that's there, when they dive, sometimes one tank can only go as far as 30 meters (98 feet) and they have to turn back." That risk has proved to be fatal after a Thai ex-Navy SEAL died on July 5 while returning from delivering oxygen tanks to the coach and boys. Former Sgt. Saman Kunan ran out of oxygen while underwater.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2018.