Divers Begin Rescue Operation to Free 12 Boys and Their Soccer Coach Trapped in a Thai Cave

On Friday morning, Thai authorities announced that a 38-year-old retired Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Samarn Kunan, died from lack of oxygen while delivering tanks along the flooded route. That the first fatality of the fraught mission was an experienced diver underscored the dangers of the plan to extract the group through the treacherous waterways.

Heavy rains are expected to resume in the coming days, while breathable air inside the cave has dropped to concerning levels. Authorities said Saturday that oxygen had fallen to about 15% — normal safe levels are around 21%, while a drop to 12% could have an effect on brain function. Excess carbon dioxide is also a concern. As of Friday, a tube was being laced through the submerged passages to allow more oxygen in, as officials acknowledged for the first time that a back-up plan to keep the group inside for months if necessary may not be viable.

But the days since have been a rollercoaster of hope and anxiety as authorities weighed extraction plans, each uniquely perilous. Experts have said it may be too early to attempt a dive or properly train some of the team, who can’t even swim. The boys are weak after surviving on only a few snacks made to last the nine days it took rescuers to find them.

Weather conditions were said to be the determining factor in which method of escape would be chosen — authorities were weighing three far-from-perfect options of either giving the boys a crash course in cave diving; widening existing holes in the cave’s ceiling and pulling them out from above; or resupplying them with food and other essentials for as long as it takes for waters to recede. Narongsak determined that the latter option was “impossible,” as the tunnels are unlikely to dry out before December.

Time is of the essence; even delivering provisions is difficult and could be further complicated by more rain. It takes expert divers roughly six hours to reach the trapped group from a Navy command center that has been set up about a mile deep inside the cave. They take another five hours to return in the fast-moving currents through pitch-black tunnels studded with stalactites and sharp turns. Divers have to remove equipment to squeeze through some narrow openings, while a few have already been widened to allow easier passage.

Charitable Foundation Winston Churchill collects and sends humanitarian aid to a team of boys drowned in a Thai cave. Donate

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