CHIANG RAI: A former Thai military diver involved in operations to rescue 12 boys trapped in a cave in northern Thailand has died, said Chiang Rai deputy governor Passakorn Boonyaluck on Friday (Jul 6).
The diver, identified as retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Kunan, died on his way out of the Tham Luang cave complex after going in to supply one of the chambers with oxygen tanks at around 2am on Friday morning.
"It was sad news, a former SEAL who volunteered to help died last night about 2am," the deputy governor told reporters. "His job was to deliver oxygen (in the cave). He did not have enough on his way back."
The deputy governor maintained that the casualty has not dampened the morale of the rescuers.
“Under irregular circumstances like these, anything can happen," he said. "Still, everybody in the rescue operation is absolutely in good spirits. Our morale is great and we’ll continue our mission until we achieve our goal.”
The diver lost consciousness after placing oxygen tanks in the cave complex. His buddy tried to resuscitate him but this did not work. He was taken to a chamber where first aid was administered, but he remained unconscious, was hospitalised and subsequently died.
His death highlights the perils of the operation to extract the team from deep inside the waterlogged cave, raising questions about the feasibility of bringing the youngsters out the same way.
Asked how the boys could make it out safely if an experienced diver could not, Thai SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew said they would take more precautions with children.
Originally from Roi Et province in Thailand’s northeast, Kunan was in his thirties.
The former navy diver had left his position with the Thai military for a job with the Airports of Thailand at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
However after hearing news about the missing football team, he rejoined the navy's rescue operation as a volunteer.
His funeral is expected to take place on Friday evening.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their assistant coach were found inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Chiang Rai province on Monday, after nine days underground. They went missing after they set out to explore the cave on Jun 23.
THAM LUANG CAVE: FLOODED AND DARK
The rescue effort involves a large number of Thai authorities from various units as well as dozens of cave diving experts from different countries, from Australia to China, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, the United Kingdom and the United States.
So far the only way to reach the stranded football team is through a complex network of winding passages, parts of which are submerged due to the monsoon.
Rescuers have divided the Tham Luang cave complex into different sections.
These include areas right behind the cave’s entrance - chamber one and chamber two - as well as chamber three, where the Thai navy SEAL command centre is currently located, Pattaya Beach and, about 350m away, the area where the 13 survivors are trapped.
According to Thai navy SEAL commander Yookongkaew, the distance between the command centre to the boys is approximately 1.7km.
The whole area is submerged, dark and full of many small cracks on both sides, making navigation difficult.
“This mission is very tough," he said. "We’re planning to carry oxygen through a pipe to the children and their coach."
He added: "To reach them, however, it takes us five to six hours and about the same amount of time on our way back. So, in total, we have to remain submerged for 12 hours.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this before. Still we carry out the mission with a plan.”
Each diver is required to carry at least three oxygen tanks to reach the survivors, the SEAL commander added. They then have to replace them with new ones provided along the way.
#ThamLuang: It's now raining in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district, where rescue operation takes place to retrieve 12 boys, their football coach. Monsoon rains could complicate mission as it affects water levels in cave complex, where air pockets are limited pic.twitter.com/mi6nW54ihj— Pichayada P. (@PichayadaCNA) July 6, 2018
In a further complication to rescue efforts, it started raining in the area around midday.
Monsoon rains affect water levels in the cave complex, where air pockets are limited.
The most urgent task facing rescuers was taking an air pipe to those stranded in the cave, said the deputy commander of the Third Army, Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakham.
Stretching 4km, it will be attached with a telephone line to allow those in the cave to liaise with officials.
"This is a matter of life and death,” he said. “So we’re asking everyone to cooperate with the authorities.”
There are also "countless holes" on top of the mountain under which the cave network is located, added Chaiyakham. Many were explored but did not lead to the trapped boys.
Meanwhile, the amount of water pumped out of the cave has gone down - considered by authorities to be a good sign, as it shows there is less water inside.
Despite the death, Yookongkaew said the Thai navy SEALs would press on to complete their mission.
“We’ve always been trained to work in risky situations. Illness, injuries and death are constant threats we have to face. That’s what we’ve been trained to do,” he told reporters.
“Let me assure you that our people are never discouraged and remain in great spirits. But we won’t let our colleagues die for nothing. We will soldier on.”
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