At least two young soccer players have been rescued from the Tham Luang Cave in Thailand after weeks of uncertainty, ominous weather conditions and a concerted effort from divers and rescuers from all over the world working to save the trapped soccer team.
“Two kids are out. They are currently at the field hospital near the cave,” Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai’s health department, told Reuters.
A mission to rescue the 12 young boys and their 25-year-old coach from the cave, located in the Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, began on Sunday at 10 a.m. local time.
Eighteen rescuers, including 13 foreign divers and five Thai Navy SEALS, entered the cave with plans to remove the stranded boys one by one, Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former Chiang Rai governor who has been heading rescue efforts, said during a press conference, according to The Guardian.
Officials had originally said the earliest a boy could be rescued would be 9 p.m. Sunday, but the first two boys reportedly emerged from the cave at least two hours ahead of schedule.
“We can say they are all international all-stars involved in this diving operation and we selected five of our best who can work with them,” The Guardian reported the rescue chief as saying.
Rescue officials have been preparing for this rescue attempt all week. On Saturday, the “water levels were the lowest they had been,” Osatanakorn said, adding that most of the cave system was walkable.
Osatanakorn declined to comment on whether the boys would have to dive at any point in the mission. An infographic later released by the Thai government suggested, however, that the boys would have to dive for at least part of the journey.
The Wild Boars junior soccer team, consisting of 12 boys between the ages of 11 and 16, along with their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, first went missing on June 23 after hiking into Tham Luang complex cave system. Heavy rains flooded parts of the cave system during their trek, trapping them in a small chamber 2.5 miles inside.
The group had already spent nine days in the dark chamber alone when two British volunteer rescue divers found them on July 2.
Since then, the Thai Navy, along with engineers, rescuers and expert divers from all over the world, have been delivering food, water, medicine and oxygen tanks to the trapped boys and their coach. Divers have also been teaching the boys ― some of whom don’t know how to swim ― breathing and diving techniques to prepare them for an escape.
Rescue workers have widened some of the narrow passages in the cave complex for easier access and have been working round-the-clock to pump water out of the flooded cave system. On Sunday, officials said they had successfully cleared a 1-mile section between the cave entrance and an area known as Chamber Three so people can walk along it.
The extraction of the rest of the team will involve extreme danger for the trapped boys and the divers attempting to rescue them. The return of the monsoon season and unpredictable flash floods threaten to further flood the cave system. Some passages within the cave are reportedly so narrow that only one body can barely squeeze through them; some are pitch black with muddied water.
It took experienced divers around six hours to reach the trapped boys’ chamber from a command center set up a mile into the cave, according to Time associated editor Feliz Solomon, who is reporting from the scene.
Rescue efforts had already claimed one fatality when a former Thai navy SEAL, Samarn Poonan, died Thursday night after falling unconscious while placing oxygen tanks deep inside the cave. The death underscored how dangerous conditions were inside Tham Luang, even for highly trained professionals.
Thai officials on Sunday continued to explore other rescue options while divers were working to extract the boys and their coach.
Rescuers have dug over 100 holes into the mountain in hopes of finding alternative routes into the chamber where the boys are located, according to the BBC. Men with climbing gear were seen near the cave entrance on Sunday.
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has also been working with Thai officials to come up with alternative rescue options. Engineers from Musk’s companies SpaceX, Tesla and the Boring Company have flown to Thailand to assist with the rescue effort.
In the hours before divers entered the cave to commence the extraction attempt, Musk said on Twitter that a team from his rocket company SpaceX was building a “tiny, kid-size submarine” that could potentially help with the rescue. He later praised the “extremely talented dive team” sent in to rescue the boys, wishing them “godspeed.”
Musk had suggested in an earlier tweet that an inflatable nylon tube could be used as an underwater “air tunnel” to rescue the boys. That idea was being tested near the cave on Sunday, according to BBC reporter Jonathan Head.
Officials on Sunday abruptly evacuated media outlets and non-essential personnel nearly two miles from a base set up near the cave, saying the space was needed for a rescue operation, CNN reported.
Dive teams, medics and security officials stayed and the rescue began hours later, according to reporters on the scene.
“If they are going for a rescue attempt today, it’s because they feel the water level has dropped sufficiently or that they simply need to act. It’s too dangerous for the children to be in there any longer,” Nick Beake, a Myanmar-based BBC World reporter, said in a video filmed Sunday morning at the rescue site.
In letters penned to their families last week, the boys urged their loved ones to not worry about them and expressed hope that they’d soon be able to eat their favorite foods. The boys also implored their teachers to not “give us a lot of homework.”
“Dad, mom don’t worry about me,” wrote 11-year-old Chanin Viboonrungruang to his parents, according to CNN. “I am fine. Please tell Pee Yod [a female relative] to take me to eat fried chicken. Love you all.”
This is a developing story.