Updated at 8:40 p.m. ET on 2018-07-09
Elite divers brought out four more boys Monday, rescuers said, as officials suspended overnight the daring international effort to extricate members of a football team and their coach from a partially flooded cave in northern Thailand.
The four boys were taken to a local hospital for further medical examination after they were carried out of the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, head of the search operations, told reporters.
“Today we are happy we successfully helped four more boys,” he said. “Currently, they are safe and soundly conscious.”
Monday’s rescue took nine hours, about two hours faster than the time it took divers to extricate the first four boys on Sunday, Narongsak said.
The rescue effort, fueled by an emotional global response, aimed to pull out 12 members of the “Wild Boars” soccer team and their coach who were trapped when they explored the vast and winding cave complex after soccer practice on June 23. Heavy rainfall flooded the underground tunnels, forcing them to huddle on a muddy bank almost 5 km (3.1 miles) from the cave’s entrance.
A British diving team located the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their coach on July 2 after they’ve been reported missing for almost 10 days, setting off a tough challenge for rescuers that include 90 divers who navigated pitch-black terrain and negotiated strong currents. More than half of the divers were from the United States, U.K. and other nations, officials said.
With the latest rescues, divers would set their sights on four remaining members of the soccer team and their coach during the third phase of rescue operations within the next three days, Narongsak said. The operation was suspended overnight to allow oxygen tanks to be refilled, he said.
“Within these two to three days, we will take all of them out,” he said. “If the weather is this good, we will have good news."
“Now we are preparing for a new operation. It will take about 20 hours, depending on Mother Nature,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Churat Panhao, chief of the Police Region 5 bureau, told BenarNews the first four children rescued on Sunday have been under quarantine and were kept away from their parents to prevent possible transmission of germs.
“They asked for their favorite food, but we kept them away to prevent possibility of micro-organism transmission,” Churat said. “We will consider allowing them to meet their parents with a cubicle separating them or allow them to meet but with distance from each other.”
Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda told reporters the four boys were in good condition.
Rain soaked the region on Sunday and additional monsoonal storms were expected, leading officials to launch the rescue effort. Rain returned Sunday night after the first four boys were brought out of the cave.
Intensifying monsoonal rains
Previously, officials had weighed an option to keep the boys and their soccer coach inside the cave for months with food and medical supplies until water levels receded and it was safe for them to walk out of the cave.
But because of the intensifying monsoonal rains, the authorities moved to undertake the dangerous mission of evacuating the team through flooded and narrow passages leading out of the cave, officials said.
The young soccer players were trained in recent days to wear and breathe through scuba gear, but expert divers warned that it could be perilous for the boys, none of whom have dived before.
“We assessed the situation with all parties involved including the meteorological department and all believed we could do it,” Narongsak said.
The rescue teams had rehearsed the plan for several days and volunteers had drained the water level considerably inside the cave, officials said.
Local media have identified four of the boys rescued Sunday, but authorities have not publicly named them.
A former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died after running out of air Friday while placing air tanks farther inside the cave.
He was the only person thus far to die in the effort to find and rescue the boys, but his death underscored the dangers faced by the underground divers who had to negotiate winding, submerged and tight passages while guiding out the boys.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified the navy SEAL who died in rescue efforts as Samarn Poonan.