The operation to rescue the remaining boys and their coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand was expected to resume Monday morning, but heavy rain threatened to further complicate the mission.
Four of the 12 boys were extracted from the Tham Luang cave network in the Chiang Rai province Sunday evening, before the operation was suspended overnight to allow oxygen tanks to be refilled before rescue teams begin the next phase.
The four boys, who were taken to a Chiang Rai hospital for further medical examination, are said to be in good health, with their condition described by officials as “not that bad.”
But rescue teams don’t have an abundance of time. Rain began to fall on Sunday, and more rain is forecast throughout the coming days, which could undo the ongoing efforts to drain the flooded caverns where the other boys remain trapped.
“We have two obstacles: water and time,” said Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osotthanakorn earlier Sunday, as rain began to fall across the site near the cave entrance.
“This is what we have been racing against since day one,” he said. “We have to do all we can, even though it is hard to fight the force of nature.”
‘A very smooth operation’
Sunday’s mission went quicker than it had in drills over the last several days, according to Osotthanakorn.
Previously, the entire round trip through the cave network was thought to take about 11 hours. But the first of the four boys emerged from the cave entrance about nine hours after a team of 18 international cave diving experts went in to retrieve them.
An ambulance leaves the Tham Luang cave area after divers evacuated some of the 12 boys trapped with their coach for 15 days.
The boys wore “full face masks and the rescue divers carried them out through the passage in the cave complex,” Osotthanakorn said in a news conference after the rescue. “It was a very smooth operation today,” he added.
While the governor would not confirm the identities of the four boys, he said the first one emerged at 5:40 p.m., followed by the second boy 10 minutes later. Two other boys emerged from the cave at 7:40 p.m. and 7:50 p.m.
Twelve boys — aged between 11 and 16 — and their coach, were discovered by two British divers on July 2, nine days after they abandoned their bicycles and disappeared into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex.
Pressure mounting as rain dominates forecasts
Rescuers have a dwindling window of opportunity, with forecasters predicting the return of heavy monsoon rains in the coming days, effectively sealing off the cave until October.
It was the rain that stranded the boys and their coach inside the cave to begin with, after they ventured into the cave network last month.
“The heaviest rain has yet to come,” said CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar.
Rescue teams have been helped by the fact that the rain stopped for several days, Chinchar said, allowing water to be pumped out of the cave and making it possible for the four boys and specialist rescue teams to make the final leg of the journey on foot.
But that could change in the coming days, Chinchar added. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday each have an 80% to 90% chance of rain.
“And really when you look at the long-term forecast, it really extends the next seven to 10 days,” she said.
Osotthanakorn told reporters there would be a meeting Sunday evening to plan next steps, and that authorities want to ensure conditions are stable before beginning the next phase of the rescue.