Rescue workers in Thailand on Monday brought four boys safely out of a labyrinthine flooded cave complex where a 12-member soccer squad and their coach were trapped for more than two weeks, taking the total number rescued to eight.
The mission to save all the trapped is a race against the clock with heavy rain expected this week which would again flood the tunnels with fast-flowing, rising water.
“All four boys have arrived at hospital, all are safe,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, head of the rescue mission, told reporters of those rescued on Monday.
Asked whether the remaining four “Wild Boars” team members and their coach would come out at the same time in the next rescue effort, he said: “It depends on the plan… We have set the plan for four people so if they want to take five out (at the same time), then they need to change the plan.”
The dramatic and dangerous rescue at the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai was launched on Sunday and four boys were brought out that day. All the boys were in good condition, Narongsak said.
The operation on Monday went more smoothly than on Sunday and took two hours less as the practice became more refined, he said.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the cave to inspect the rescue operation, with navy rescuers giving him a rousing cheer.
“The prime minister said that this kind of event should never happen again on Thai soil,” Narongsak told reporters. “We should learn from this experience to prevent it from happening again.”
The Thai navy SEAL unit, which has been overseeing the rescue, confirmed on its Facebook page that the total number of boys brought out was eight.
“The rescue has been immense,” said volunteer helper Somjit Saenset, 56. “I’m so happy the children came out safely. I want to send my moral support for all involved” in the rest of the mission.
The Wild Boars and their coach became trapped on June 23 when they set out to explore the vast cave complex after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
British divers found the 13, huddled on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometres inside the complex, on Monday last week.
Efforts to rescue the boys – aged between 11 and 16 – got going again on Monday after a break to replenish oxygen supplies and make other preparations deep inside the cave complex.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand‘s elite navy SEAL unit make up the main team guiding the boys to safety through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
Narongsak said that the “same multinational team” that went into the cave on Sunday to retrieve the first four boys was deployed on Monday.
On Sunday, divers held the first four boys close to bring them out, and each had to wear an oxygen mask to enable normal breathing, authorities said.
Narongsak said rescuers had to tighten a guide rope as part of their preparations for Monday’s operation.
He said all the boys were in good condition.
Authorities have not confirmed the identity of the rescued boys. Some of the parents told Reuters they had not been told who had been rescued and that they were not allowed to visit the hospital.
Narongsak said the rescued boys had not been identified out of respect for the families whose sons were still trapped, adding that the boys were being kept away from their parents due to fear of infection.
Medical teams previously said concerns included hypothermia and an airborne lung infection known as “cave disease”, which is caused by bat and bird droppings.
Somboon Sompiangjai, 38, the father of one of the trapped boys, said parents were told by rescuers ahead of Sunday’s operation the “strongest children” would be brought out first.
“We have not been told which child has been brought out … We can’t visit our boys in hospital because they need to be monitored for 48 hours,” Somboon told Reuters.
“I’m hoping for good news,” he said.
The cave complex is off-limits during the rainy season, which usually runs from May to October, when downpours can quickly flood it. Relatives said the boys had been inside the complex during the dry season.
The president of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday if they make it out in time.