Thai officials have confirmed the rescue mission to retrieve 12 boys and their coach from the Tham Luang caves, where they have been stranded for the past 15 days, is underway.
A team of 13 international cave diving experts and five Thai divers entered the precarious cave system at 10am local time on Sunday, after attempts to drill through to them were abandoned.
Officials told media gathered at the site that the boys and their coach are in strong spirits and determined to get out. Their families have been informed and reportedly agreed with the decision to make the most of the opportunity to get the boys out before the forecasted monsoonal rain sets in.
According to reporters live tweeting from the press conference, the boys will be extracted in groups of four, with the first lot expected to exit the cave this evening.
Before they do that though, the young soccer team, whose ages range between 11 and 16, will have to make their way through the cave’s flooded tunnel system. The entire journey is about 4km long and requires the boys – some of whom can’t swim – to dive underwater and pull themselves through the narrow tunnel using a rope.
On Saturday, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osoththanakorn had told reporters a rescue attempt was expected in the next few days, but that the onset of monsoon rains could trigger an earlier operation.
“If we wait too long we don’t know how much rainwater will come,” he said.
“Now we can control the risk at one level but if the risk increases to the point that we cannot accept, we will make a decision.”
The rescue mission has faced a perfect storm of obstacles since it began, including monsoonal rains, a lack of oxygen in the cave and the fact that many of the boys trapped inside don’t know how to swim let alone dive.
Thai Navy SEALS and dozens of volunteer rescue workers have worked around the clock funnelling food and oxygen into the cave and trying to train the soccer team and their coach to dive with heavy scuba gear on their backs.
Engineers have been diverting the water flow into the cave over the past week and pumping it out at a rate of 180,000 litres an hour in an attempt to make it easier for the boys to escape and reduce the amount of time they must spend underwater.
On Friday, Thai officials said the boys were working to build up their strength, but were not yet ready to navigate their way through small underwater passages – which can reportedly take an experienced diver around five hours. However, it seems their concerns have been abandoned as the impending deadline approaches and they race to get them out before it’s too late.