THAM LUANG, Thailand: Thai authorities are exploring a new, shorter route to the 12 stranded schoolboys and their football coach in the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai.
While they have been pumping out water from the cave to facilitate the rescue operation, authorities are now looking at a possible opening in the ground linked to a shaft above or near where they are trapped.
If they can find and successfully enlarge it, it could shorten the journey to reach them.
The group was discovered by Thai Navy SEALS and two British cave diving experts on Monday (Jul 2), having gone missing since Jun 23, when a post-practice outing went awry, prompting a high-profile search and rescue effort.
At present, the stranded team has to wait more than 10 hours for aid from the outside world to be delivered by Thai navy Seals and cave diving experts.
Any journey from the cave’s entrance to where they are stuck takes Thai navy Seals six hours of walking, swimming and diving through a complex network of winding passageways now submerged in floodwaters. Some are very narrow to pass through in murky water.
On Thursday, about 30 teams of rangers combed the forest above the cave to locate them and look for any opening.
“We want to focus on the area above where they’re stranded but it’s difficult because they’re deep inside,” said Maj Gen Bancha Duriyaphan, who is part of the rescue operation.
No GPS tracking has been made inside this cave before, he added, and navigation is difficult.
“We have to find an area that’s thin enough to drill to get closer to them. Even then it wouldn’t be a straight line down. The channel will zigzag through the layers of rock.”
'RACE AGAINST TIME'
It took Thai authorities and cave diving experts nine days to find them.
The team was first approached by John Volanthen and Richard Stanton from the United Kingdom, who surfaced inside one of the cave chambers on Monday night. The location is no less than 4km from the cave’s entrance.
Rescue teams are aiming to get the boys and their coach out before water levels rise again, with the monsoon rain threatening to wreak havoc. The Thai Meteorological Department has forecast thunderstorms throughout this week in Chiang Rai.
"We were racing against time before we found them. Now we're racing against water. It keeps seeping through the cave," Chiang Rai governor and head of the rescue operation Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters in a press conference on Thursday.
"It’s been 14 days and everyone is exhausted. But we can't risk more flooding."
Water levels in parts of the cave complex decreased by 40cm on Wednesday due to non-stop drainage and irrigation, said a rescue officer from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
But it takes more time now for the water levels to decrease, Narongsak said, from 4-5cm per hour previously to only 1cm at present.
The journey in and out of the Tham Luang cave system has also become more difficult as the rescue operation goes on, the governor said.
He said that it takes 11 hours to receive any information from where the stranded team are - six hours to get in, because of the current, and five to get out - delaying the authorities’ decision-making process.
Nevertheless, Maj Gen Bancha said the authorities will choose the safest way to get them out. He compared the cave to a sponge that continues to absorb water from every direction, adding that the rescue team is working around the clock and will not stop until all the 13 people stranded have safely left the cave.
“The whole mountain is full of holes. There’s water everywhere and we’re trying to drain it,” he said. “We’re looking for the best way to get them out.”
The governor also said that the boys and their coach remained in good spirits.
READ MORE | Full coverage of the search and rescue operation: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/topic/Thailand-cave-rescue