The first four young football players trapped deep in an underground passage in northern Thailand were extracted in a daring rescue by an elite team of cave divers on Sunday.
Global audiences held their breath as the first of the Thai boys and their rescuers swam through flooded chambers, squeezed through narrow passages and navigated through pitch darkness and deep mud to emerge from the cave system into an overcast night around 5.40pm local time.
Having successfully traversed up to four kilometres of passageways, the boys were then rushed to hospital in Chiang Rai, 18 kilometres to the south-west.
The mission was then paused for at least 10 hours after oxygen tanks stashed along the route in the cave system in northern Thailand were depleted.
The conditions are among the most challenging imaginable for rescuers and have already claimed the life of a highly experienced diver.
The route travelled by the four boys and their rescuers involves crawling and squeezing through mud and debris, through crevices barely wide enough for one person. "The hole is really small, I have to take off my air tank to crawl through it," a 25-year-old Thai Navy Seal, who declined to be named, told Reuters before the rescue attempt. "As I do, I feel the edges of the hole on both my back and chest."
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The Thai official heading the cave rescue said the operation was going better than expected. Chiang Rai province acting governor Narongsak Osatanakorn told crowds of gathered media on Sunday that the rescue would resume Monday.
The 12 young football players and their coach have been trapped by rising floodwaters in the underground passage near Chiang Rai for the past 15 days.
The team, named the Wild Boars, set off on an adventure to explore the Tham Luang cave system after football practice on June 23. A downpour of monsoon rain forced the team to retreat deep inside the cave in the face of rising flood waters.
A huge team assembled to search for the boys but it was nine days before the first divers reached them.
John Volanthen and Richard Stanton of the British Cave Rescue Council found the boys, aged between 11 and 16, huddled together with their coach on a ledge kilometres inside the cave, drinking water dripping from stalactites.
The divers gave the team survival blankets for warmth and medicine and energy gels for sustenance, while those on the surface began the planning the logistics of an extraction.
The limestone cave system, which riddles a mountain range near the Myanmar border, has flummoxed a global team of up to 1000 Thai and international cave rescue experts who have worked night and day to try to find a safe exit for the boys.
While weighing different options for a rescue, experts have been pumping tonnes of water from the cave to prevent flood levels rising.
Meanwhile, divers who have reached the boys have been teaching them how to use underwater breathing apparatus so they can safely navigate the submerged parts of the passageway to the surface. Many of the boys were not even able to swim, it was reported.
The boys appear to have remained in high spirits, writing notes to worried parents that have been carried to the surface by divers. One boy, who was celebrating his 16th birthday when the team entered the cave, wrote: “I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don’t need to be worried about me.”
Despite earlier statements that the boys could be trapped in the cave for up to several months, families of the boys gave their assent to rescuers attempting a dangerous scuba extraction on Sunday, due to fears that Monsoon rains could further flood the cave.
Rescuers selected the fittest of the boys to escort through the cave first, guiding them through the dark and narrow submerged passageways to the cave’s mouth.
A 15-minute flight aboard military helicopters then whisked the boys to the nearest hospital. Crowds of well-wishers thronged the roads outside the military airport in Chiang Rai on Sunday to celebrate the boys' arrival.
The plight of the trapped boys has captivated audiences across Thailand and the world. Comparisons have been drawn to the case of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days after a mine collapse, before being successfully extracted in a globally televised rescue.
Thai officials were hoping for a similarly successful ending to their rescue attempts but already the operation has been marred by tragedy.
On Friday, former Thai Navy Seal diver Saman Kunan died in the labyrinthine cave system while trying to establish an oxygen line to the stranded boys.
The rescue of the remaining boys could take another two to four days, depending on conditions in the cave, a Thai official said. According to Maj Gen Chalongchai Chaiyakam, the 13 "will continually come out in approximately two to four days, which all may change depending on weather and water conditions".
The Thai Navy Seals signed off on the close of Sunday's rescue operation with a Facebook post that read “Tonight, we can sleep well.”
The post ended: “Hooyah.”