The 12 boys and their soccer coach who have been trapped in a partially flooded cave for more than two weeks began a perilous underwater swim to safety on Sunday morning, accompanied by rescue divers, as they raced to beat an oncoming storm, officials said.
The boys were to be brought out one by one along a path that rescue teams had lined with spare oxygen tanks and lights in an effort to make the dive through murky waters, strong currents and narrow passages less dangerous for the novice swimmers. One former Thai navy SEAL diver died Friday due to lack of oxygen.
Calling it “a D-Day,” the acting governor of Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand said the high-risk mission began at 10 a.m. local time. He said it would take at least 11 hours for the first person to be rescued.
“I assure you that the boys are physically, emotionally and mentally ready to come out, no matter what challenges lie ahead,” Narongsak Osatanakorn said.
“I insisted we’re ready for the operation today. The weather is good. Water level is good. Divers are ready.”
Thirteen foreign divers and five Thai divers were taking part in the rescue, officials said. Each boy would be accompanied by two divers.
Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakum, the regional Thai army commander, said the mission could take up to four days depending on the weather and water levels inside the cave.
Thai authorities had initially said the boys could stay where they were found inside the cave for weeks or even months. But the fear of fresh flooding from an incoming monsoon — and declining oxygen inside the cave due to the arrivals of many more rescue workers — prompted officials to launch the mission Sunday under gloomy, threatening skies.
The boys’ family members, who have been holding a vigil near the mouth of the cave, were briefed on the operation before it began, officials said.
Ambulances were ready to meet the boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach at the mouth of Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, where they were trapped by floodwaters during a hike after soccer practice on June 23.
After a desperate search that transfixed this Southeast Asian nation and drew divers and volunteers from around the world, the group was found alive by British divers last Monday on a rocky ledge about two miles inside the cave. As the search for the missing boys and coach continued, monks and holy people arrived to hold vigils at the site. Some took turns giving sermons and offering comfort to relatives of the missing, who sat in plastic chairs in an area cordoned off from the public.
Even Thai authorities appealed to the spirits by setting up shrines, burning incense and offering food and drink to the deities — including a boiled pig’s head and beer.
In recent days, Thai navy divers and medics have been treating the boys’ minor injuries, fortifying them with high-protein gels and teaching them how to wear diving masks and breathe in preparation for the evacuation.
Rescue workers have pumped out millions of gallons of water, flooding nearby farms but reducing the water levels inside the cave to their lowest in many days, officials said Sunday.
It takes experienced divers roughly five hours to travel from the slope where the boys are, through a fork to reach Chamber 3, a dry area where the Thai navy has set up a command post, a distance of slightly more than one mile. From there the boys could probably walk to the mouth of the cave, officials said.
Teams searched in vain for other options to evacuate the group — such as by drilling a hole in the mountainside above and lifting them out, as was done to save 33 Chileans trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010.
Despite their ordeal, the boys were in good spirits, smiling and reassuring their families in videos captured in recent days by the Thai navy.
In handwritten notes released Saturday, several boys told their loved ones they would soon be reunited.
“I’m doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don’t worry,” wrote Duangphet “Tom” Promthep. “Although, don’t forget to set up my birthday party.”
Some of the boys took a reassuring tone in their notes to their families.
A boy named Tun wrote: “Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love.”
A boy named Night, referring to himself in the third person as is a Thai custom, told his parents: “Night loves Dad and Mom and brother, don’t worry about me. Night loves you all.”
The Associated Press reported that the soccer team’s coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, apologized to the boys’ parents for the ordeal.
Special correspondent Styllis reported from Mae Sai and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.
Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia
10:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the rescue.
10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and background.
9:15 p.m.: This article was updated to report the evacuation of the soccer team and coach had begun.
This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.