Diver dies as officials warn of ‘limited amount of time’ for Thai cave rescue
A former Thai navy Seal passed out underwater on an overnight mission and was unable to be revived.
Thai authorities overseeing the rescue operation for 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave said they have a “limited amount of time” to get them out after a diver died during the bid to free them.
Officials are racing against worsening weather and lowered oxygen levels in the underground complex in the country’s north.
The massive operation inside and around Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province suffered its first fatality on Friday when a former Thai navy Seal passed out underwater on an overnight mission and was unable to be revived.
“We can no longer wait for all conditions (to be ready) because circumstances are pressuring us,” Thai Seal commander Arpakorn Yookongkaew told a news conference.
“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,” he said.
The oxygen levels inside the cave were getting lower because of all the workers inside and authorities were working to run an oxygen line inside the complex that was in addition to the oxygen canisters used by divers, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said.
A senior army commander, Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakam, said that the most pressing mission now is to provide an oxygen line to reach the children, who are stuck deep in the complex but are being looked after by four Seals, including a medic.
He said the oxygen line is also tied to a telephone line that will provide a channel of communication for the children.
The boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach went exploring in the cave after a football game on June 23.
Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days as the only way to reach them was by navigating a series of dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents.
British divers Rick Stanton, a fireman in his fifties from Coventry, and John Volanthen, an IT consultant based in Bristol in his forties, were the first to reach the group.
Images later showed that one of the boys was wearing an England football shirt.
Authorities have been racing to pump out water from the cave before more storms hit the region in the coming days and send water levels rising again.
At this time though, the only way for the boys to get out of the cave is by diving, something cave rescue experts warn is extremely dangerous even for those with experience.
Friday’s death of the former Seal underscores those risks.
The diver was working in a volunteer capacity and died during an overnight mission in which he was placing oxygen canisters along the route divers must take to get to the children, Mr Arpakorn said.
The strategically placed canisters allow divers to stay under water for longer during what is about a five-hour trip to reach the stranded team.
While underwater, the rescuer passed out and efforts to resuscitate him failed, Mr Arpakorn said.
Another navy official said he did not believe the man’s oxygen tank ran out.
“Despite this, we will continue until we accomplish our mission,” Mr Arpakorn said.
The governor has said the 13 may not be extracted at the same time, depending on their condition.
The boys are weak but for the most part physically healthy.
They have practised wearing diving masks and breathing in preparation for the diving possibility.
Officials would prefer to get the boys out as soon as possible because heavy rain expected by Saturday will almost certainly raise water levels again in the cave, making passage in some areas even more difficult, if not impossible.
They are hoping that an upgraded draining effort can lower the water in an area where it is still at or near the ceiling.
The idea is to get some headroom so the boys would not be reliant on scuba apparatus for a long stretch and could keep their heads above water.
Cave rescue experts have said it could be safest to simply supply the boys where they are, and wait for the flooding to subside.
That could take months, however, given that Thailand’s rainy season typically lasts until October.
And without proper oxygen levels, staying put could also prove deadly.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk has said he is sending engineers from two of his companies to Thailand to see if they can help bring out the members of the football team trapped in the cave.
Maybe worth trying: insert a 1m diameter nylon tube (or shorter set of tubes for most difficult sections) through cave network & inflate with air like a bouncy castle. Should create an air tunnel underwater against cave roof & auto-conform to odd shapes like the 70cm hole.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 6, 2018
Mr Musk tweeted the announcement after another Twitter user pleaded for him to help the 12 boys and their coach.
In a series of tweets, Mr Musk said his Boring Co, which digs tunnels for advanced transport systems, has advanced ground penetrating radar, and brainstormed that an air tunnel constructed with soft tubing like a bouncy castle could provide flexible passage out.
He said engineers from his Boring Co and SpaceX companies needed to be on site to appreciate the complexities of evacuation.