The rescue mission to extract 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave appears to be underway as workers fight against the clock to retrieve them all safely.
Multiple reports from Thailand say ambulances have arrived at the Tham Luang caves in the past hour, screens have been erected to block the view at the cave’s entrance, the media zone has been shut down and four helicopters are on standby.
The dramatic scenes come as heavy rain sets in across Thailand, hampering rescue workers’ relentless efforts to drain water out of the cave system before they attempt to get the boys out.
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.
The dangerous recovery mission has already claimed the life of one volunteer, 38-year-old Saman Gunan whose job was to deliver oxygen to the boys. While he heroically delivered the large tanks to the boys, Gunan tragically ran out of his own oxygen on his way back out of the cave and perished in its narrow tunnel system.
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.
Authorities now say that almost the entire first 1,500 metre stretch from the cave mouth to the third chamber — where the Thai navy SEALS have set up a command post — is now walkable and that they have the water levels under control.
The rescue mission has been made all the more complicated by the cave’s precarious 4km tunnel system, much of which remains flooded.
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.