The first members of a boys' soccer team have been freed on Sunday from a flooded cave in northern Thailand where they have been trapped for more than two weeks, according to multiple media reports.
One of two ambulances leave the cave in northern Thailand hours after operation began to rescue the trapped youth soccer players and their coach, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, Sunday, July 8, 2018. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)
Reuters reported a senior member of rescue operation's medical team said Sunday that six boys have exited, while The Associated Press quoted Thai navy SEALS as saying rescuers have taken four members of the team out of the Tham Luang Cave.
CBC News has not been able to independently confirm the reports. Authorities in northern Chiang Rai province began the dangerous mission to bring out the 12 boys and their soccer coach earlier on Sunday.
Military helicopters are on standby to transport those recovered to a hospital about 60 kilometres away. AP reported two ambulances drove from the scene outside the cave to a nearby helipad and a helicopter was seen taking off.
Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said 13 foreign and five Thai divers were taking part in the rescue and two divers will accompany each boy as they are gradually extracted. The operation began at 10 a.m. local time.
The entire operation to get all 13 out of the cave could last two to four days, depending on weather and water conditions, said army Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakam.
The boys, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach became stranded when they went exploring in the cave after a practice game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
The only way to bring them out of cave is by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air. A former Thai navy SEAL died while making the four-kilometre journey on Friday.
A rescuer arrives outside the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, on Sunday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Experienced cave rescue experts consider an underwater escape risky, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
But the governor supervising the mission said earlier that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation that won't last if it rains again.
Locals wait on Sunday in front of the Chiang Rai hospital where the 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach tapped inside a flooded cave are expected to get treatment once rescued. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
Before announcing that the rescue was underway, authorities ordered the throngs of media that have gathered at the cave from around the world to leave.
'We are at war with water'
Authorities had said that incoming monsoon rains that could send water levels in the cave rising, coupled with falling oxygen levels in the enclosed space, added to the urgency of getting those trapped out. Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy downpour.
"It's been raining more every day," freelance journalist Stephen Boitano told CBC News. He said a torrential downpour lasting half an hour hit as the rescue operation got underway.
Narongsak said on Saturday that experts told him water from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square metres.
"I confirm that we are at war with water and time from the first day up to today," he said Saturday. "Finding the boys doesn't mean we've finished our mission. It is only a small battle we've won, but the war has not ended. The war ends when we win all three battles — the battles to search, rescue and send them home."
A truck carrying oxygen tanks arrives outside the Tham Luang cave complex. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families that were made public Saturday. The notes were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey to act as postmen.
One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: "Mom and Dad, please don't worry, I am fine. I've told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love."
"Don't be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I'm happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all," wrote Mick.
"Night loves Dad and Mom and brother, don't worry about me. Night loves you all," wrote Night, in the Thai manner of referring to one's self in the third person.
A relative shows a transcript of a message from a boy of nicknamed Adun, one of the 12 schoolboys trapped in a flooded cave. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
The most touching note came from one whose name was not clear: "I'm doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don't worry. Although, don't forget to set up my birthday party."
Another, of indistinct origin, asked their teacher not to give them a lot of homework.
The boys may be forced to learn to dive – and then swim through pitch-black, treacherous tunnels to escape. 5:29
In a letter of his own, the coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, apologized to the boys' parents for the ordeal.
"To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents," he wrote.
An update Saturday from the Thai navy said three navy SEALs were with the boys and their coach, one a doctor. The 13 were having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and were being taught diving skills. Food, electrolyte drinks, drinking water, medicine and oxygen canisters have been delivered to them. A major concern of the rescuers is that oxygen levels in their safe space could fall dangerously low.
Rescuers have been unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some compressed air tanks.
'Very dangerous undertaking'
Doug Munroe, an experienced cave rescuer with the Alberta/B.C. Cave Rescue Service, said the rescuers will have to guard against fatigue as they concentrate at the task at hand, navigating through a cave complex where some passages are only "two feet across and one feet tall, maybe less."
"When you are in a rescue situation, you often tend to forget about yourself. In my experience, you become very focused on the task at hand, and that's one of the things that can create risks to rescuers. They may not attend to their own safety as much as they would otherwise attend," Munroe told CBC News.
"This is certainly a very dangerous undertaking," said Christian Chenier, who teaches cave rescue in Quebec.
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