Thai rescuers are racing to pump out water before rainfall washes through the flooded cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach — trapped since late last month — await extraction, officials said.
Parts of a passage in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex leading to the chamber where the group was found Monday were still flooded to the ceiling, which currently leaves diving as the only way out. And though first responders have been working to drain the water and remove the team with minimum risk, heavy rain is expected to start by Saturday.
"What we worry most is the weather," Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn told The Associated Press. "We can't risk having the flood back into the cave."
The conditions of the boys and their coach will affect how and when they are extracted, Osatanakorn noted, saying they may not all be taken out at the same time.
Officials hope an upgraded draining effort will lower the water level in the area still flooded to its ceiling, giving the group headroom so they are not totally reliant on scuba gear. Other options are also being explored, including scouring the mountainside for other ways into the cave.
Cave rescue experts have said the safest option for the group may be to remain where they are until the water recedes. Though that could take months, as Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts through October, experts say bringing the group food while they wait it out may be safer than untrained boys attempting to navigate through the dark and sometimes dangerous waters inside the cave.
"We are talking kilometers of transport under the water with zero visibility," Claus Rasmusen, a certified Thailand-based cave diving instructor who has been helping with the rescue’s logistics, told The AP. "It's difficult."
Thailand's Underwater Demolition Assault Unit, the agency in charge of extraction, is evaluating the risk of taking the group out, and though the boys have been practicing wearing diving masks and breathing, it doesn’t appear they have yet practiced diving, Osatanakorn said.
But Rasmusen said it’s possible to teach the group minimal skills they would need to get out.
“Nobody will teach anyone a full cave course, but trying to get them comfortable with masks, with the breathing, [is] completely different," he said. "Creating an environment that can make them safely get away, that's feasible."
The boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach disappeared while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Thailand after a soccer game on June 23.
The group was found to be skinny, but in good health, and have received high-protein drinks as they are treated by the Underwater Demolition Assault Unit.
In a video released by the Thai navy, several of the boys are treated for minor cuts on their feet and legs, but otherwise appear in good spirits. Authorities are working to install a communication system to allow the children to speak with their loved ones.
Another video has helped boost morale as its messenger knows better than most what the boys and their coach are going through.
“I have no doubt that if the government of the country puts in everything and makes all possible efforts, this rescue will be successful,” Mario Sepulveda, one of the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, said in a video sent to AFP meant for the group. “May God bless you! We are praying for each of you, for each of the families and for these children. May God bless you."