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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

‘Mission Impossible’: What lies ahead for boys found alive in Thai cave

Risky decisions face rescue experts as they plan way out for trapped football team

An undated handout photo released by Royal Thai Army on 03 July 2018 shows the missing 13 young members of a youth soccer team including their coach, moments they were found inside the cave complex at Tham Luang cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Royal Thai Army / EPA
An undated handout photo released by Royal Thai Army on 03 July 2018 shows the missing 13 young members of a youth soccer team including their coach, moments they were found inside the cave complex at Tham Luang cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Royal Thai Army / EPA

After days of darkness, 12 boys and their football coach finally saw a light: the torch of British divers who had navigated a flooded and precarious Thai cave complex to find them. But it may be weeks or, worse, months before they see sunlight again.

The search for the boys and their football coach, found hungry and emaciated on Monday, more than a week after they went missing, has gripped the world.

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Read more: The mission to save the boys begins - live updates

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Yet that effort remains far from over. The Thai youth team is still trapped inside the flooded caverns, perched on a dry mound surrounded by water, still dressed in their football uniforms.

After the success of the search mission, the focus will now switch to the difficult task of extracting them safely from the Tham Luang cave network in Chiang Rai province located in Thailand’s northwest.

Roy Cooper / The National
Roy Cooper / The National

Aged between 11 and 16, the boys went missing with their 25-year-old coach after training on June 23, when they set out to explore the caves in the forest park.

Joining the British are other cave experts from around the world and teams from the US, Australia, China and elsewhere as the bid to save the boys becomes an international affair.

Here’s what lies ahead for the boys, their coach and the responders trying to free them on what has been billed as “missile impossible” by local authorities.

Critical supplies

The football team, starved of food supplies for more than a week, immediately requested nourishment when the two British divers experienced in cave rescues, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, finally found them. “Eat, eat, eat” said one of the boys.

The divers had brought high-calorie gels and medicines with them, while the Thai military has pledged to deliver food supplies that could last for four months as they could remained trapped for weeks or even months.

Doctors say the boys had only survived by remaining in place and drinking water that had been dripping from stalactite formations.

They remain weak after days without sunlight or a regular supply of clean water and food so replenishing them will be vital to securing their escape.

A team of Thai Navy SEALS divers also brought lights, a power supply and communications equipment. Several members of the team remain with the boys.

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Read more

Thai cave rescue: everything we know so far

Thai boys missing in a cave for nine days found alive

Help reaches Thai cave boys after days trapped underground

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The safe option

One of the options facing the rescuers is keeping the team in place until the flood waters subside or enough water can be pumped out of the complex.

While it presents the safest choice at present, July is the start of the rainy season and, with further rains forecast, the floods in the cave could become even worse, complicating supply missions.

The Thai Meteorological Department forecast for Chiang Rai calls for light rain through Friday followed by heavy rain starting Saturday and continuing through July 10.

Waiting for the waters to subside could leave the boys in place for months.

A daring dive

A massive barrier lies in the way of evacuating the team safely: they do not have any diving experience.

Authorities now face a race against time to beat any more monsoon rains. Thai Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda has suggested that the boys may have to swim out of the cave complex using diving equipment to do so.

The Thai military has said it is providing diving lessons to the boys in hope that they can boost their skills enough to make the dive.

They would be guided by two professional divers each. But if anything went wrong, Mr Paojinda admitted that it could be a perilous journey for the malnourished boys.

"Diving is not easy. For people who have never done it, it will be difficult, unlike diving in a swimming pool, because the cave's features have small channels," he said. "If something happens mid-way it could be life-threatening."

Risky route

The diving party had to create a complicated route to reach the team. They may have to do the same to extract the boys.

Estimates say they are located around two kilometres into the cave and around one kilometre below surface level. The caverns stretch under a mountainside for as long as 10 kilometres. Rescuers have been looking for routes into the caverns from the mountain area.

But the boys are located in a narrow opening of the cave network, rather than a large chamber, and drilling in would present a multitude of problems. Any such operation would also take a long time.

Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand's longest, winding 10 kilometres, and is also one of the toughest to navigate – especially in the wet months.

The sign outside the entrance to the caves serves as an indicator to the dangerous months that may lie ahead. It warns against any entrance into the complex between July and November.