BANGKOK: Rescuers braced for a difficult evacuation for 13 members of a Thai youth football team found alive in a cave nine days after they went missing, as a phone cable was hurridly fed into the underground chambers in the hope of allowing them to speak to their families for the first time since their ordeal began.
Divers struggled through narrow passages and murky waters to discover the boys late on Monday night on an elevated rock about 4km from the mouth of the cave.
Rescuers now have to decide how best to get the group out in their weakened state.
Much-needed food and medical supplies - including high-calorie gels and paracetamol - reached them Tuesday as rescuers prepared for the possibility that they may be there for some time.
A team of Thai Navy SEAL divers - including a medic - have joined them on the bank, while rescuers pored over evacuation plans from the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand before heavy rains return and raise the water level.
"A telephone line will be installed tonight... they (the boys) will be able to talk with their families via military phone," Passakorn Boonyarat, deputy governor of Chiang Rai province, told reporters late Tuesday.
He refused to speculate on how long they might be trapped, but explained that while there are enough provisions for four months, anyone fit and able to leave the cave would be evacuated as soon as possible.
"Any boys who are ready can come out first", via "chamber three" a cavern being used to as a base to store food, oxygen tanks and diving gear as well as plan the complex logistics of how to move 13 weak and inexperienced divers out of a partially-submerged cave.
Rescuers told reporters that a first meal of pork and sticky rice was being prepared for the boys, who belong to the Wild Boar football team, The Guardian said.
Options for evacuating the boys include getting them to dive, drilling a hole or waiting for the floodwaters to subside.
However, experts have pointed out that it will be risky for the boys, who reportedly cannot swim, to attempt to dive through the muddy waters, currents and tight passageways, which even elite Thai navy SEAL divers found challenging.
"It is one of the plans (to dive out). But if we are using this plan, we have to be certain that it will work and have to have a drill to ensure it's 100 per cent safe," said Thai Navy SEAL commander Arpakorn Yookongkaew.
Experts have suggested supplying the boys with a full-face mask, which would be safer than conventional masks, which can be knocked out in a current or collision, The Guardian reported.
Rescuers have asked for donations for 15 small and extra small masks for the boys, it said.
The group's health was assessed overnight by medical teams, who will continue to check the health of the group, said Narongsak, explaining that the boys had sustained light injuries.
"We categorised their health condition as red, yellow or green, red being the most severe injuries, yellow being mild and green being light. Yesterday, unofficially, we assessed that most are in the green category," said Narongsak.
Narongsak said rescue workers will now focus on the "rescue" phase and then a handover to medical teams waiting outside the cave.
He added that doctors have advised on the types of medication required to prevent infection and other illnesses.
"We will prepare to send additional food to be sustained for at least four months and train all 13 to dive while continuing to drain the water," Navy Captain Anand Surawan said, according to a statement from Thailand's Armed Forces.
A video shot by rescuers on Monday in flickering torchlight revealed boys clad in shorts and red and blue shirts sitting or standing on the rock above an expanse of water.
"How many of you are there - 13? Brilliant," a member of the multinational rescue team, speaking in English, tells the boys. "You have been here 10 days. You are very strong."
"Thank you," one of the boys says.
One of the boys asks when they will get out of the cave, to which the rescuer answers: "Not today. You have to dive."
Two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were first to reach the boys, having had strong experience in cave rescues, according to Bill Whitehouse, the vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC).
They found the stranded group along with a team of Thai navy SEAL divers.
News of the boys' survival were greeted with jubilation nationwide by Thais who have followed every twist of the harrowing story.
"I'm so relieved, though I still don't have the chance to see him ... I want to tell him I'm still here waiting," Kieng Khamleu, said of her son Pornchai Khamleung inside the cave.
Another parent said he could hardly believe the good news.
"It's unimaginable. I've been waiting for 10 days, I never imagined this day would come," the father of one of the boys said.
Diving teams prepared telephone lines to lay in the cave to set up phone calls to the boys, the governor said.
Aged between 11 and 16, the boys went missing with their 25-year-old coach after football practice on Jun 23 after they set out to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in a forest park near Thailand's northern border with Myanmar.
Rescuers found their bicycles, football boots and backpack near the cave's opening, and spotted handprints and footprint further in - leading them to the spot they were eventually found.
The harrowing task of getting the boys out is complicated by the fact that they are in a weak state and are not experienced divers.
The rugged and wet kilometres-long course toward the entrance takes a healthy SEAL diver six hours.
If diving proves impossible, there is an outside chance they can be drilled out or wait for waters to recede and walk out on foot.
But the clock is ticking with heavy rains forecast to return this week as the monsoon season bites deeper.
The priority is to get the team's strength up before they start the tricky journey out, officials said, reluctant to offer a concrete timeline.
At 10km long, Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand's longest and one of the toughest to navigate, with its snaking chambers and narrow passageways.
A sign outside the site warns visitors not to enter the cave during the rainy season between July and November.
READ MORE | Full coverage of the search and rescue operation: