Dive operations at a cave in northern Thailand, where 12 young soccer players and their coach are believed to have gone missing, have been halted due to heavy rain, the regional governor told CNN Thursday.
Searchers’ focus has shifted to finding alternate routes down into the cave system through rock chimneys, though locating potential access points on foot through thick jungle terrain has been slow.
A team of US military rescuers arrived at the site late Wednesday but couldn’t safely enter the flooded cave, Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said.
“They went straight to the cave, but due to the heavy rain and the cave’s flooding, their team and ours had to pull out,” Osatanakorn said. “As far as I know, they have come with set of underwater equipment with sonar system, which also can dive down underwater.”
Many of the boys’ relatives remain near the search site. The boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have been missing since Saturday afternoon, when a park officer spotted bicycles near the entrance to the off-limits cave complex.
Those bikes have been gathered as the boys’ families await news.
The US search team — comprised of rescue paratroopers, a survival specialist and support personnel — is in Thailand “in an advise and assist role,” has 24-hour support capability and is working hand-in-hand with Thai counterparts, a military spokeswoman told CNN.
“We’re really here to provide that expertise and capability knowledge to our Thai partners,” US Air Force public affairs officer Jessica Tait said. “Obviously, they have been providing tremendous effort for the past four days on the rescue attempt.”
The boys and their coach are believed to have crawled into the large series of caves through a narrow, 15-meter (50-foot) channel.
A sign at the entrance to the cave — a popular tourist attraction — warns of danger during the rainy season, which is just getting underway.
Trekkers look for alternate routes in
Trekking teams are still searching above ground for alternate entrances to the cave system.
“It seems the first option — of drawing out water and bring them out through the mouth of the cave — is difficult now,” Osatanakorn said. “We have (another) option, of going down from above. We found holes and chimneys, and we are prepared to drill the hole down if we have to.”
But it is hard going. The terrain, which the rains have turned into heavy mud, is covered by thick, overgrown jungle and is difficult to navigate.
Josh Morris, founder of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing, said two of his employees are helping with rescue operations. Noppadol Uppatham had been there since Saturday, he said, as part of a “rope and technical team.”
“There’s a diving team, and separately, there are army officers that are looking through the landscape to find possible other entrances outside, to bypass the entry point,” Morris told CNN.
“That way, they could rappel down to the cave. When you are caving, you look for a hole and notify to a tech team to look if that would be suitable. That’s where (Uppatham) is working.”
Trekking teams had found a vertical shaft that appeared to lead into the cave and dropped in food and drinking water, in case the group was nearby, said Thanya Netithamkul, director general of the national park, wildlife and plants department.
Unusually high amount of rain
The amount of rain falling on the region “is very unusual,” even during the current rainy season, Osatanakorn said. A five-hour storm from Wednesday into the early hours of Thursday pushed water levels in the cave even higher.
“Our teams who were working inside the cave had to withdraw to the mouth of the cave,” he said. “We just can’t fight the (amount of) water.”
Rain is forecast in northern Thailand for the next several days, CNN meteorologist Haley Brink said.
“Thailand is currently under the influence of the southwest monsoon, meaning a prevailing stream of warm, moist air from the Indian Ocean is surging towards Thailand, causing abundant rains over much of the country,” she said.
Despite the dwindling odds of rescue and the length of time the boys have been missing, the government has “hope” that they are alive, Osatanakorn said.
Larger water pumps, normally used to deal with flooding in Bangkok, were brought in overnight to help reduce water levels in the cave, he said, adding that major progress had been made Wednesday in getting the heavy-duty water pumps up and running.
“We made big progress, because we have installed heavy duty water pumps at the mouth of the cave,” Osatanakorn said.
It’s the first time rescuers were able to pump water directly out of the cave entrance; smaller pumps previously drew water from creeks that run into the cave system.
As Thursday wore on, an hourslong break in the rains gave teams a chance to restart the pumps, though they continued to struggle with the volume of water.
Families wait for news
Relatives started gathering at the cave entrance Saturday evening. Now, about 60 people sit in a makeshift tent camp set up by the local government and anxiously await updates from officials.
One mother, sobbing, was helped by friends and relatives to a shrine, where she prayed for her son’s safe return.
Sudsakorn Sutham, the father of one missing boy, Prachak, said he is certain the authorities will bring the boys home.
“I feel (the situation) is getting better and better. I am confident that my son will come back,” he said. “There’s so much help here.”
He said he believes his son’s athleticism will help him survive in the caves.
“I’m so confident, 1 million percent, because my son is strong,” he said. “He is an athlete. He is a footballer.”