Thai Rescuer Dies in Efforts to Help Save Boys Stranded in Cave

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Chiang Rai, Thailand
180706-TH-diver-1000.JPG A Thai Buddhist monk leads an honor guard carrying the coffin of Saman Kunan, 38, a former member of Thailand’s elite Navy SEALs, who died while working to help save 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped inside a flooded cave, at Chiang Rai airport, July 6, 2018.

Updated at 2:29 p.m. ET on 2018-07-06

An ex-Thai Navy SEAL died Friday while helping in efforts aimed at rescuing a youth soccer team trapped inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand, officials said of the first casualty in a crisis lasting nearly two weeks with no clear resolution in sight.

Retired Petty Officer First Class Saman Kunan, 38, fell unconscious as he participated with other rescuers in a mission to lay oxygen tanks along flooded passageways of the Tham Luang cave complex, authorities said. A comrade tried to resuscitate him on the spot, but Saman had be evacuated and rushed to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

“Last night, we planned to bring oxygen tanks from Chamber 3 to where the children are. It took five to six hours for each leg, a total of 12 hours in the cave they needed to be,” Rear Adm. Apakorn Yukongkaew, commander of the Thai Naval Special Warfare Command, told reporters outside the cave in Chiang Rai province, located some 900 km (559 miles) north of Bangkok.

“For Saman, he laid the tanks and came back but he passed out. His buddy tried CPR but he did not recover, so he brought him back to the operations base in Chamber 3, then a hospital,” Apakorn said.

“We are trained to risk sickness and life. We still have good morale. The loss will not be in vain – we will soldier on,” the commander added.

The volunteer’s death cast a pall over efforts that have dragged on for 13 days to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach who went missing inside the cave on June 23, when it became flooded by monsoonal rains. Those picked up in intensity on Friday, hampering rescue efforts.

Boat tragedy

Meanwhile in southern Thailand, at least 33 people were confirmed dead Friday and 23 others, mostly Chinese tourists, remained missing after a boat they were traveling in capsized in high seas off Phuket Island late Thursday afternoon, a Thai official said.

On Friday, rescuers plucked 48 survivors from water after saving only one person the day before. The dive boat Phoenix carried 105 passengers including 12 Thai crew members. A second dive boat, Seranata, and a jet ski also capsized but all onboard were rescued.

Rescue efforts were suspended Friday night because of darkness.

In Chiang Rai, the missing boys and coach were found alive Monday, but the euphoria that gripped the nation has given way to some anxious moments as hundreds of rescuers from Thailand and multiple other countries have been trying to figure out how to evacuate them safely from the flooded cave.

On Friday, they scrambled to clear brush in the jungle above the cave in an effort to create an alternate escape route for the boys, reports said.

The players of the Wild Boars team – ranging in age from 11 to 16 years old – and their coach are stranded on higher ground more than 4 km (2.48 miles) from the main entrance to the cave, but are being cared for by a medical team and supplied with food, officials said.

Apakorn said the evacuation efforts were still focusing on taking them out via the same route in which they traveled through the cave before getting stuck, but those passageways are narrow and submerged in water, making such an evacuation risky, authorities said.

Meanwhile, they said rescue teams were working to drill holes to access a shaft closest to where the boys have been sheltering.

The boys may need to stay in the cave for months in order to regain strength, learn to swim and scuba dive, the Navy said in a statement on July 2, the day the children and their coach were found alive.

The rescuers have set up an operations base in the cave’s Chamber 3, which is nearly 3 km (1.86 miles) from the main entrance.

“The distance from Chamber 3 to where they are at Noen Nom Sao is about 1,700 meters [5,577 feet]. This part is totally submerged and dark. There are too many wiggling passageways, up and down. This mission is sheerly tough,” Apakorn said.

However on Friday, Apakorn indicated that the threat of the water level rising inside the cave due to more heavy rainfall, combined with decreasing oxygen levels, might force rescuers to evacuate the youths much earlier than they thought possible.

"We can no longer wait for all conditions (to be ready) because circumstances are pressuring us," he said, according to the Associated Press. "We originally thought the boys can stay safe inside the cave for quite some time, but circumstances have changed. We have [a] limited amount of time."

Soon before midnight on Friday, the governor of Chiang Rai province, confirmed that rescuers might have to try to evacuate the boys if heavy rains threatened their well-being.

"But if it is all stable, we can keep the boys where they are ....  We cannot bring the boys out today, they are not ready,” Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn told a news conference outside the entrance to the cave.


Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand contributed to this report.


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