By TASSANEE VEJPONGSA and KAWEEWIT KAEWJINDA, Associated Press
MAE SAI, Thailand (AP) — The youth soccer coach trapped in a partially flooded cave in northern Thailand with 12 members of his team apologized to their parents in the first letters they have sent out through divers, with the boys saying they’re doing well and missing their families.
The local governor in charge of the mission to rescue them said Saturday that cooperating weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created appropriate conditions for evacuation, but that they won’t last if it rains again.
Thai officials have repeatedly said that a quick underwater evacuation of the boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach was needed because of the possibility that access to the cave could soon close again due to flooding from seasonal monsoon rains.
Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy rain.
Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said rescuers are “at war with water,” and that experts told him flooding from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square meters (108 square feet).
There are also concerns about the percentage of oxygen in the air at the boys’ safe space falling, and carbon dioxide content increasing, posing a serious health hazard. The boys and their coach are accompanied by several Thai navy SEAL divers.
Rescuers were unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks.
Divers Friday night brought out poignant letters written by those trapped inside.
Ekapol Chanthawong, the coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, wrote: “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.”
One boy wrote: “I’m doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don’t worry. Although, don’t forget to set up my birthday party.”
Another, identified as Tun, wrote: “Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love.” The name reference could be of a waiting relative.
The rest of the scribbled letters on pages from a notebook struck a similar message of love for parents and telling them not to worry.
A boy named Mick wrote: “Don’t be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I’m happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all.”
The boys and their coach have been trapped since June 23, when they went exploring in the cave after a soccer game. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days. The only way to reach them was by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air.
Rescuers are also pursuing other options to extract the boys, hoping that finding a shaft or drilling into the mountain in which the cave is located will lead them to a sort of backdoor entrance.
Authorities were waiting for two big groups of volunteer foreign divers to arrive later Saturday and Sunday, after which they will be ready to act quickly to bring the team members out when the conditions are right, said Gov. Narongsak.
“The plan that I’ve held on to from the beginning is that we have to bring the kids out and the determining factor of this plan is to have as little water as possible,” he said, adding that floodwaters have been drained as much as possible.
Narongsak said the boys were still healthy and have practiced wearing diving masks and breathing in preparation for the diving possibility.
The death on Friday of a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, underscored the risks of making the underwater journey. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working in a volunteer capacity and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the route to where the boys and others are sheltered.
The strategically placed canisters allow divers to stay underwater longer during the five-hour trip to reach the stranded team.
Late Friday, Narongsak ruled out any immediate rescue attempt, saying the boys “cannot dive at this time.” He said the boys were still healthy and have practiced wearing diving masks and breathing in preparation for the diving possibility.
Cave rescue specialists have cautioned against an underwater evacuation except as a last resort, because of the dangers posed by inexperienced people using diving gear. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
Tech billionaire Elon Musk has sent a team of engineers to Thailand to see if they can help in the rescue effort. Musk’s Boring Company digs tunnels for advanced transport systems and has advanced ground-penetrating radar.
A spokeswoman for the Boring Company who declined to be named said it is in talks with the Thai government and people on the ground to determine how they could best assist their efforts.
[Feature image: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit]