BANGKOK, Thailand - Despite a treacherous operation lying ahead of them, the team of rescuers entered the Thai cave on Sunday, determined to commence the rescue of the team of young boys and their coach who have been stuck inside the cave for over two weeks.
The rescue operation, which was launched at 10 am on Sunday, proceeded faster than expected and by the time the operation ended for the day - four of the boys had been rescued while eight boys and their coach awaited to see the light of day.
On June 23, after the group was reported missing, a search operation was launched.
Investigators confirmed that the boys were inside, after they found their bikes abandoned at the entrance of the fourth longest cave in Thailand, the Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
The 12 boys are all part of the Moo Pa (Wild Boar) football team and were believed to have been guided into the cave by their assistant soccer coach, Ekkapol Janthawong.
While authorities tried to gather resources to launch a search operation, efforts were marred by adverse weather conditions, with heavy rains sending torrents of water flooding through the cave.
Over the next few days, the team of Thai Navy SEAL special forces, who put together a team of navy divers, military, police and volunteers, found it difficult to wade through the murky floodwaters, inside the pitch dark cave that is in a dense jungle-covered and muddy mountainside.
With persistent rainfall continuing to flood the cave, the team employed a variety of strategies, including usage of powerful industrial water pumps, drilling through rock to drain water, deploying drones equipped with thermal cameras, sending an underwater robot to analyze the depth and condition of the cave, and even using sniffer dogs to search for the missing group.
However, with local authorities not making any headway, the plight of the young boys and their coach drew an outpouring of emotion across the world.
Several countries then sent some of their best divers to aid in the rescue operation, which increased not only the size, but also the level of expertise of the rescue team - taking the number to 1,000 people, including teams from China, Myanmar, Laos, Australia, the U.S., and the U.K.
On Sunday, four of the boysthat had been trapped inside, emerged from the cave, as their ecstatic parents, relatives and others gathered outside the cave and several million others across the world watched ecstatic.
Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command centre coordinating the rescue, said at a press briefing on Sunday, “Today was the best situation – in terms of kids’ health, water and our rescue readiness. Four have been [brought] out from the cave site, four have been rescued. We consider that a great success.”
He added that the operation proceeded hours faster than expected and said, “It has been our masterpiece work.”
Osatanakorn said that 90 divers, including fifty foreigners and 40 Thais were involved in the operation on Sunday.
According to Osatanakorn, the first boy emerged from the cave at 5.40pm local time (1140 BST), followed by a second 10 to 12 minutes later.”
He added, “After that, a third and fourth at 7.40pm and 7.50pm.”
Commenting on Sunday’s operation, Osatanakorn said that after completing the 3.2km journey through the muddy, jagged cave, the divers turned and hugged the boys and coach, who emerged wearing full-face scuba masks.
He also confirmed that all four of the rescued had safely reached Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital in the nearest major city, Chiang Rai.
However, authorities have not revealed the identities of the boys rescued or on what basis they were selected to be rescued.
With the second part of the operation planned to begin in the morning, Osatanakorn said, “Our job is not completely done. We will have to do the next mission as successfully as the one we did today. The rest of the kids are in the same spot.”
The remaining eight boys and the coach will be brought out in the second part of the operation, which begins on Monday morning.