4 Team Members Are Out of Thailand Cave, With 9 to Go

The harrowing operation to rescue a group of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand took 18 days and dozens of divers.

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• The first four rescued team members were at the hospital, military and local officials said. But it will be hours before other boys can start the trip. Divers are replacing air tanks and supplies along their route until then.

• In the town where the soccer team is based, the celebration was exuberant, even as families awaited word on the rest of the team.

• The rescues came as heavy monsoon rains returned to the area, after days of relative respite. Experts say the rain will not immediately make water levels rise within the cave, but it greatly increases the urgency of the operation.

Four of the team members have safely made the harrowing underwater passage out of the cave and were at the hospital, the head of search operations, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said at a news conference on Sunday night.

He said there would be a delay of at least 10 hours until other boys were rescued, to allow time for more air tanks and gear to be replaced along their route.

Mr. Narongsak, who until a few days ago was also the provincial governor, said that 10 cave divers had accompanied the boys all through the journey. “They hugged the boys beneath them while they were wearing full-face masks,” he said.

The plan had been for the first team member to emerge around 9 p.m. local time, but things went more quickly: The first came out at around 5:40 p.m., he said. The fourth emerged around 7:50.

“Today, everything was very smooth,” he said. “We have been practicing for the past three to four days, rain or shine.”

The Facebook page for the Thai Navy SEALS announced that “Wild Boar No. 4 is out of the cave,” in a reference to the team’s mascot name, the Wild Boars.

[Read here about how the ordeal started: A team-building adventure to the cave after a regular Saturday practice turned into an emergency after monsoon rains struck.]

A Facebook Messenger group organized by some of the players’ parents identified two of the rescued players. One, Mongkol Boonpiam, was said to among those ailing the worst. The other player was identified as Prajak Sutham.

Others were reported to have made progress along the cave network. Experts said the journey from the boys’ cavern to the cave entrance, including long passages completely submerged in murky, rushing water, took even the best cave divers in the world six hours to navigate.

An earlier version of this article reported that the boys’ coach was one of the four rescued from the cave on Sunday. The identity of those rescued, however, has not been confirmed, and we are not certain the coach is out of the cave. We will continue to update as more information becomes available.

— Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono, near Tham Luang Cave

Credit...Lillian Suwanrumpha/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the town of Mae Sai, where the trapped boys’ soccer team is based, residents and family members were cheering the sound of every helicopter and ambulance they heard, in an uproar of celebration at the news that boys were leaving the cave on Sunday.

“I am so happy!” said Kamon Chanthapun, an adviser to the team. “I was so worried because they are just children, stuck for so long in the dark.”

Young men rode in the back of flatbed trucks, cruising the streets and cheering.

Mae Sai is a town that thrives on border commerce. Some residents have relatives across the border in Myanmar, and thousands cross over from that country each day to work, trade or attend school in Thailand.

One of the boys in the cave, Adul Sam-on, is a student at the Ban Wiang Phan school here. Inside, students had written messages on heart-shaped sticky notes placed up in a big heart shape on a bulletin board with optimistic messages. “Hopefully our friend can come out safely,” read one.

Adul was the boy who spoke to British divers in English in the video that announced to the world that the team had finally been found, after 10 days stuck in the flooded Tham Luang Cave.

The head coach for the soccer team, Nopparat Khanthawong, who did not enter the cave with the others two weeks ago, said: “I’m happy that children are coming out. All I can do is to send my prayers and support to the children and rescuers.”

He added: “We don’t know the physical condition of the boys. Please keep them coming!”

— Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono, in Mae Sai

Divers pulling the 12 boys and their soccer coach from the cave were in a race against time, with the threat of rains making an already difficult rescue even more urgent.

Mr. Narongsak, commander of the rescue operation, said it could take days to recover the full team. The boys and their coach are being brought out one at a time by 13 foreign cave divers and five Thai Navy SEAL divers, Mr. Narongsak said.

He said the boys had been preparing for days to come out through long, flooded passageways that are challenging even for the most skilled cave divers, who must navigate openings so narrow that only one person can go through at a time. Each boy will have two divers trying to bring him out.

Further complicating the operation is that some of the boys do not know how to swim, said divers participating in the rescue effort.

Ambulances and helicopters are standing by to transport them to a hospital for medical treatment.

“Everyone knows exactly what they have to do, because any confusion in there would be really bad,” Mr. Narongsak told a packed news conference.

He said this was the best chance to bring out the boys safely.

“We believe there are no days when we have been readier than today,” Mr. Narongsak said. “If we don’t do the rescue on the day when we are readiest, we might lose the opportunity to carry out this mission.”

Mr. Narongsak announced that the rescue had begun after officials had cleared the area outside the cave of journalists.

Hundreds of journalists had been monitoring the rescue attempt from a base camp by the cave, and the number grew significantly after the boys and their coach were found safe on Monday night.

“Assessing the situation now, it is necessary to evacuate the area for the rescue operation,” Komsan Sa-ardluan, the local police commander, told reporters over a loudspeaker. “Those unrelated to the rescue operation, please evacuate the area immediately.”

— Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono in Mae Sai

A Thai official has said that some members of the boys’ soccer team trapped in the flooded Tham Luang Cave network don’t know how to swim, further complicating the rescue effort.

That may surprise people from countries where swim lessons are a rite of passage for most children. But in Southeast Asia, not knowing how to swim is normal.

A key reason is that many mothers in the region believe that teaching their children to swim will increase the risk of them drowning, said Michael Linnan, the technical director at the Alliance for Safe Children, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that has worked extensively in the region.

Dr. Linnan said it was not uncommon to see rates of swimming in low- and middle-income countries that are “well below” 20 percent, even among sailors, fishermen and others who earn their living on the water.

Drowning is a leading cause of death among children in low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Unicef said in a 2012 report. Unlike in high-income countries, the report said, the danger to children typically comes not from swimming pools but from daily exposure to water and “spontaneous actions that put them at risk.”

In Thailand, the Health Ministry reported in 2014 that drowning was the primary cause of death among children under 15. It said an average of four children in Thailand died every day from drowning, a rate five to 15 times higher than those for developed countries.

Dr. Linnan, a former medical epidemiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said Thailand has made “enormous strides” in the last decade toward preventing child injury and morbidity. For example, he said, the government established a national day care program, a move that helped to prevent drownings among very young children.

But he said he hoped recent events at Tham Luang Cave would be a “teachable moment,” highlighting a need on a national scale for further efforts to prevent drowning.

“I hope that will be the silver lining in this cloud,” he said.

— Mike Ives in Hong Kong

One boy promised to do his chores when he gets home. Another asked for barbecued pork.

In letters home, written on water-stained paper and posted Saturday on the Thai Navy SEALs’ Facebook page, the trapped boys and their soccer coach sought to reassure their families that they were in good hands and in good spirits.

“Don’t worry about me,” wrote Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsookchan, 13. “I’ve been away for two weeks. I’ll help mom every day. I’ll be back soon.”

“I’m happy in here,” wrote Panumat “Mix” Saengdee, 14. “The SEAL team takes very good care of us.”

The boys’ parents had written to them earlier. The letters, carried by divers making six-hour trips in each direction, are the first direct communication between the parents and their sons. Attempts to establish a phone line to the cavern where the boys are trapped have not yet been successful.

“Mom, Dad, I love you guys, and little sister Toi,” wrote Pipat “Nick” Poti, 15. “If I get out please take me to a pork barbecue place. I love you Dad, Mom.”

The boys’ coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, wrote to the parents as a group, promising to take care of them as best as he could. The parents had written to him earlier, assuring him that they did not blame him for the situation.

“Thank you all for the support,” the coach wrote. “I deeply apologize to the parents.”

He also wrote to his own family members — an aunt and his grandmother — asking them not to worry too much about him. “Aunty, can you please tell granny to prepare vegetable juice and pork snacks?” he wrote. “I’ll eat them when I get out. Love you all.”

— Muktita Suhartono, at the Tham Luang Cave

On Friday, a Thai Navy SEAL commander said the oxygen level in the boys’ cavern was about 15 percent and falling. That is a concern because levels below 16 percent can cause oxygen depletion, a condition known as hypoxia.

Under normal conditions, the air people breathe consists of about 21 percent oxygen, 78 percent nitrogen and one percent argon and other gases, including carbon dioxide. When the mix changes, humans can feel a range of health effects, subtle and otherwise.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration reports that hypoxia may cause headaches, nausea, drowsiness, rapid breathing, slurred speech and “diminished thinking capacity,” among other problems. It can also result in incapacitation or, in extreme cases, death.

Hypoxia can be a concern in high-altitude regions, or when a plane loses air pressure.

The air in caves tends to be good, and cavers would typically worry about high concentrations of carbon monoxide, not low concentrations of oxygen, said Dinko Novosel, the president of the European Cave Rescue Association.

But Mr. Novosel said an oxygen concentration of 15 percent or less in the Tham Luang Cave network would be “really problematic” for anyone trapped inside. It would allow them to survive, but make even basic activities difficult, he said.

Raymond Cheung, a professor of neurology at the University of Hong Kong, said the specific health effects would depend on a range of factors. Assuming the 12 trapped boys and their coach are healthy and not exerting themselves, “because they’re near sea level and the pressure is normal, then they should be all right” for the time being, Professor Cheung said.

But strenuous activity in such a low-oxygen environment could cause severe problems, especially for anyone with a pre-existing heart or lung condition, he said.

On Saturday, Mr. Narongsak, the official leading the rescue operation, said that at one point the oxygen level had been so low in a chamber where many rescuers were working that nonessential personnel were sent out of it.

He also said that rescuers were concerned about the level of carbon dioxide in the cavern where the boys are trapped.

People naturally release carbon dioxide when they exhale. Professor Cheung said that the carbon-dioxide concentration in air was generally no more than about 0.2 percent, and that a concentration of more than about 5 percent would cause a person to feel breathless. At about 10 percent, he said, a person would become unresponsive.

— Mike Ives in Hong Kong, and Richard C. Paddock at the Tham Luang Cave

A retired Thai Navy SEAL diver died in Tham Luang Cave when he ran out of air while underwater, the Thai authorities said on Friday.

The diver, a volunteer identified as Saman Gunan, 38, ran out of air while placing spare oxygen tanks along the route to the cavern where the boys are trapped.

Mr. Saman ran into trouble at about 1 a.m. on Friday, and efforts to revive him were not successful, said Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew, the Thai Navy SEAL commander.

The operation to rescue the boys is now focused on delivering air and running a communications line to the group’s location from a nearby cavern known as Chamber Three. The distance from there to the group is about 1,700 meters, officials say, and one part of the effort now is to run a hose across that distance to pump air into the team’s chamber.

[Tham Luang Cave is especially hard to navigate, professional divers say, pushing their abilities to the utmost — read our full story.]

For now, the only way to communicate between officials coordinating the rescue effort and the group in the cave is by messenger, a journey of about six hours one way.

Installing a communications line would facilitate any rescue operation and allow the boys to talk to their families.

Four Thai Navy SEALs, including a doctor, are with the boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old soccer coach.

One of the men rescued from a mine in Chile in 2010 sent a video message of hope this week to the trapped boys’ soccer team in Thailand.

“We are praying for each of you, for each of the families and for these children,” said Mario Sepulveda, who was the second of more than 30 miners pulled to safety in a specially built capsule after being trapped for more than two months, in a rescue televised around the world.

Mr. Sepulveda, who was nicknamed “Super Mario” for his exuberant exit from the rescue capsule, became a motivational speaker after the incident.

In the video released Wednesday, he said he wanted to send “a lot of strength to the authorities and the families of these 12 children who are underground.”

His message was echoed by others who went through the ordeal in Chile.

“They shouldn’t be ashamed to be scared,” Omar Reygadas, another miner, told The Associated Press earlier this week. “Because we were scared, too. Our tears also ran. Even as adult men, we cried.”

— Palko Karasz

Mae Bua Chaicheun, a rice farmer who lives near Tham Luang Cave, wanted to help in the search for the missing boys. So last week, she volunteered for five days at the rescue center, delivering drinking water to soldiers and helping clean up.

When she returned home to her village in the flatlands a few miles from the cave, she found that her fields were flooded with water that had been pumped from the caves in the effort to reach the 12 boys and their soccer coach.

She had already prepared the soil on her five acres and was about to plant rice. Now she has to start over.

But she is not concerned about that. Most importantly, the boys were found alive.

When she saw the news that the boys were found, she said she put her hands together in front of the TV and thanked Buddha.

“I had goose bumps,” she said.

She is one of dozens of farmers downstream from Tham Luang Cave whose fields have been flooded by the surplus water pumped out to reduce flood levels in the cavern.

The government is offering compensation to farmers whose land was flooded. In her case, that would have come to about $430, plus seed and fertilizer. But she said she didn’t want to add to the government’s burden in the midst of the search, and did not register.

“I am more than willing to have my rice fields flooded as long as the children are safe,” she said. “The boys are like my children.”

— Richard C. Paddock, in Nong Oo Village

When two British divers first reached a trapped boys’ soccer team in a flooded cave in Thailand on Monday, they may have experienced some déjà vu.

The divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, are members of the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team, one of 15 such teams in the United Kingdom. And this isn’t the first time they’ve been flown to another country for a cave-rescue mission.

In 2004, Mr. Stanton, a retired firefighter from Coventry, was involved in the successful rescue in Mexico of six Britons who had been trapped in a cave for more than a week — one of the best-known cave rescues in recent history.

According to CoventryLive, a local news site, Mr. Stanton helped persuade one of the British men in Mexico, who was scared of water and had never dived before, to make a nearly 600-foot dive as part of the escape.

Six years later, Mr. Stanton and Mr. Volanthen, an information technology consultant, were flown to France in an attempt to rescue Eric Establie, a climber who had gone missing in a cave. They found his body about 3,000 feet from the entrance.

Queen Elizabeth II later made Mr. Stanton a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or M.B.E., “for services to local government.”

“I was very surprised,” he told a reporter after the award was announced in 2012. “People would say in jest that I should have got an M.B.E.,” he said, adding, “but it’s not something I have really thought about.”

— Mike Ives

Video clips taken by a Thai Navy SEAL member show the 12 boys and their soccer coach in the cave, looking skinny but seemingly healthy and in good spirits.

Divers reached them on Monday night and have been taking them food, medicine and other supplies as officials and diving experts try to figure out how to extract them from the Tham Luang Cave.

In one clip, the boys are sitting, some wrapped in space blankets, as Lt. Col. Dr. Phak Lohanchun, an army doctor who has SEAL training, puts disinfectant on their cuts.

Dr. Phak mentions the rigor of that training and, holding the disinfectant, tells the boys: “I had wounds all over my body. I couldn’t take a bath. To heal the wounds, I had to apply this all over.”

The diver taking the video says to a boy who appears to be one of the youngest, “Show me your smile.”

The boy smiles shyly and holds up two fingers.

In another video, the boys speak briefly in turn to the camera, giving their names and saying they are healthy.

“What do the 13 of you want to say to your fans?” the doctor asks. “Everybody in this world has been following your news.”

The videos were originally posted on the Facebook page of Forest Records, a Thai indie label that recorded a song by a band in which Dr. Phak performs. Two are also hosted on the Royal Thai Navy Facebook page.

— Muktita Suhartono and Richard C. Paddock, at the Tham Luang Cave

JUNE 25: Divers are brought in to start a painstaking search through flooded passages.

JUNE 27: On Day 5, a portrait of the growing vigil as the odds worsen.

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