MAE SAI, Thailand – Rescuers punched a hole into the side of a mountain on Thursday in a desperate attempt to drain rising water from a flooded cave in northern Thailand where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been missing for five days.
But the effort appeared unsuccessful and the situation remained dire, with no guarantee that the water will soon recede from the cave with months left in Thailand’s rainy season.
Divers have been unable to navigate passages filled with muddy water, and rescuers are seeking alternative ways of entering the sprawling cave, hoping to find hidden shafts in the mountain that might offer a back door into the caverns.
Deputy national police chief Wirachai Songmetta said he will join more than 600 people combing the mountain for possible cracks. A few shafts that were found were ruled out, but Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said rescuers are still looking at three locations. They will explore further with the geological department using equipment such as small cameras, he said.
The missing boys and coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province after a soccer game on Saturday afternoon. The cave complex extends several kilometres (miles) with narrow passageways and uneven ground and is known to flood severely in the rainy season.
Still, authorities have expressed hope there are dry places on higher ground within the cave where the group may be able to wait.
Thai searchers have been joined by a U.S. military team and British cave experts, along with several other private teams of foreign “cavers.” At a morning briefing, Thai SEAL divers explained to the U.S. team that water levels had been rising overnight at a rate of about 15 centimetres (6 inches) per hour, complicating efforts to squeeze through tight passages, some of which require divers to contort their bodies around L-shaped bends.
Near-constant rains have stalled search efforts inside the cave by raising water levels. A key chamber deep inside the cave has filled with water, blocking searchers from proceeding further into the cave complex.
Giant pumps attached to long hoses were deployed to drain that chamber, but could not keep up with flooding caused by the heavy rains. Water backed up into areas leading from the cave entrance to the filled chamber, causing a further disruption to the rescue effort.
Authorities also had to switch off the power to the pumps for safety as teams worked to raise the power cables above the floodwaters.
“There’s not much we can do right now,” Interior Minister Anupong said. “We have to wait for the water level to decline. (Divers) can’t do anything right now.”
Thursday’s drilling from outside the cave was aimed at removing water from where it was accessible — near the cave’s entrance, where equipment can be easily deployed — in hopes of draining it away from areas further inside the cave, said Suratin Chaichompoo, president of the Thai Well Water Association. But water levels continued to rise.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii confirmed that a U.S. team of about 30 people was sent to assist the search. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said Wednesday that the team had been sent at the request of Thailand’s government.
Some parents of the missing children have been spending the nights in tents outside the cave entrance as rain pours. On Thursday morning, a Buddhist monk led a prayer for relatives, many of them red-eyed and crying.
Medics sat in a tent nearby, and bicycles, backpacks and soccer cleats the boys left behind remained at the entrance.
Anmar Mirza, national co-ordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission in the U.S. and editor of the Manual of U.S. Cave Rescue Techniques, said that in a situation like this there are likely to be only two things that can be done: attempt to pump the water down and search for alternative entrances.
Drilling would be extremely difficult for a number of reasons and could also take days to weeks, he said, adding that it was important not to take needless risks.
Mirza said the boys’ youth and health are to their advantage and if the cave is not too cold, they should be able to survive four to five days with no water and a month or more with water but no food.