Frantic rescuers battle time to free boys from Thai cave
RESCUERS are working day and night to save 12 Thai boys from a flooded cave before it's too late, but serious challenges are impeding progress in their terrifying mission.
The schoolboys and their football coach are trapped three kilometres into a system of linked chambers in Mae Sai, northern Thailand, beyond the reach of the anxious hordes at the cave entrance.
Skilled cave divers are painstakingly teaching the boys to swim in preparation for a perilous escape plan, which involves pairing them with trained frogmen and leading them to safety through pitch-black water and narrow passageways.
It had been hoped the rescue would begin on Thursday, but the ambitious plan has not yet been put into action, with a string of difficulties from ill-health to nightmare logistics threatening to derail the mission.
VOLUNTEERS' DANGEROUS WATER ERROR
Out in the open air, teams from across the world are working frantically with Thai authorities to overcome potentially deadly challenges and make sure no one dies in the desperate effort to save the boys' lives.
Their greatest threat comes from torrential monsoon rains forecast to hit Chiang Rai province this weekend, which could cut off the boys from the outside world for months.
Volunteers have been helping Thai Navy SEALs to pump water out of the caves, but some unregistered helpers made the situation worse by accidentally pumping water back into the cave, officials told the Bangkok Post.
Operation commander Narongsak Osotthanakorn said the volunteers directed the flow of extracted water into the ground, creating a stream that fed back into Tham Luang cave.
"We are racing against water," said Mr Narongsak, former governor of Chiang Rai province. "Water is flowing into the cave although we have plugged its channels."
Belgian cave diver Ben Reymenants, who owns a business in Phuket, was reportedly exploring a new, wider channel with air pockets that could offer a safer route out for the boys.
If one of them was to panic while following a rope through water like "black coffee", they could kill themselves or their rescuers.
Two of the boys and the coach were reportedly suffering from exhaustion through malnutrition, according to CNN, which could make it almost impossible for them to attempt an escape.
POTENTIALLY FATAL DELAY
The distraught families of the young boys are waiting fearfully at the cave mouth for news of their children. The youngsters, aged 11 to 16, were believed dead after they went missing on June 23. They were finally found alive almost ten days later by divers on Monday, starving yet overjoyed to be discovered.
But their relatives have learnt the rescue operation could take weeks or even months if the storms arrive, with no easy way to extract the trapped boys from their subterranean prison.
Royal Thai Navy SEALs, Australian Federal Police divers and rescuers from countries including the UK, US and China have converged on the scene to help - but they are concerned at the slowness of communication.
It takes even experienced divers six to seven hours to complete the round-trip from forward command in the third cave chamber to the boys huddled on a ledge deep inside the complex at Noem Nom Sao. This could mean a fatal delay if anything was to go wrong during the audacious rescue plan.
Engineers are working to install a cable to allow the children to speak to rescuers their families. Media at the scene reported seeing officials taking old-fashioned military communication devices into the cave system, but one phone reportedly fell into the water and had to be replaced.
Rescuers have also been transporting food, supplies and first aid into the caves, along with diving equipment to be used by the boys and oxygen "stage" tanks that will be set up every 25 to 50 metres along their route for extra air.
The boys have been practising wearing scuba masks, and will be kitted out with wetsuits, aqua boots and a helmet as they attempt to escape.
They will share oxygen from a navy rescue diver's air supply as they follow a guide rope through the murky water.
The divers will have to remove their scuba kits to squeeze through certain narrow points along the route, with volunteers holding the guideline submerged up to ten metres at various points in the freezing, muddy water.
HIDDEN PASSAGE OR A DEATH-DEFYING JOURNEY
Around 30 teams of jungle trekking rescuers were scouring above ground for a possible "secret passage" to safety, after the boys told divers they heard dogs barking, a rooster crowing and children playing.
If they weren't hallucinating, this may mean the trapped boys are close to a shaft that rescuers could climb down for a far easier evacuation method. The current plan involves an arduous, four-hour journey for the young boys, and could last for two days of continuous individual trips.
Classmates of the boys joined their families in the forest at the entrance to the cave, the BBC reported, where they sang: "Believe in God. Only belief can move a mountain."
Soldiers have been controlling the crowds as heavy machinery was brought to the cave entrance and medics rehearsed carrying empty stretchers to ambulances for when the boys emerge.
It is suspected that the group entered the cave to write their names on the wall as part of an initiation ritual. But Thai police refused to comment on whether the 25-year-old coach should be charged for leading the children into the cave, while two of the boys' mothers came forward to say they did not blame him for the disasters.
Video shot by divers showed the boys looking thin but apparently in good spirits, asking what day it was and whether they could have something to eat.
Chilean miner Mario Sepulveda, who was trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, sent a heartfelt video message to the boys, telling them they should not be afraid to cry.
They will need to show even more bravery in the days to come.