Rescuers freed the last four of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from deep inside a flooded cave yesterday, a successful end to a perilous mission that gripped the world for more than two weeks.
World leaders joined the global outpouring of relief and congratulations at the astounding rescue.
I am glad to hear that all 12 boys and their coach have been rescued from the cave in Thailand. It’s a humanitarian story that led to an outpouring of sympathy. My heartfelt congratulations to them, their families, the brave rescue team and to the King of Thailand and all Thais.— محمد بن زايد (@MohamedBinZayed) July 10, 2018
Mohammad Bin Zayed hails mission
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, tweeted: “I was very pleased with the successful rescue of 12 kids and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand. A humanitarian story that the entire world empathised with. I salute the rescue efforts and our heartfelt congratulations to the children, their families, brave rescue teams, and the King of Thailand, his government and people.”
The “Wild Boars” soccer team, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach became trapped on June 23 while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
Medic and Navy SEALs exit cave
The medic and three Navy SEAL divers have exited Thai cave, said the head of rescue mission. Thai army has sent over 1,000 personnel to assist in the operation that safely evacuated 12 members of the junior football team and their coach, trapped in the cave for 18 days. I am so happy, I may not be able to thank everyone,' he said.
'I am so happy, I may not be able to thank everyone,' he said.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the final rescue was completed, said the boys were given an anti-anxiety medication to help with their perilous removal from the cave.
Asked at a weekly press conference Tuesday in Bangkok if the boys had been sedated, Prayuth said: "Who would chloroform them? If they're chloroformed, how could they come out? It's called anxiolytic, something to make them not excited, not stressed."
All 12 boys and coach out of Thai cave
All 12 boys and their coach have been safely brought out of the flooded Tham Luang cave in Thailand.
"12 'Wild Boars' and coaches out of the cave. Safe everyone. This time, waiting to pick up 4 Frogs." Thai Navy Seals posted on their Facebook page.
Four divers who stayed with the group were still to emerge.
Earlier, three ambulances, their lights flashing, were seen leaving the site of the flooded Thai cave where rescuers are involved in an all-out effort to rescue members of a youth soccer team and their coach trapped deep within.
The "Wild Boars" soccer team and their coach got trapped on June 23 while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai after soccer practice and a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
British divers found the 13, hungry and huddled in darkness on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometres inside the complex, on Monday last week.
Eleventh person rescued from Thai cave
Three more people were rescued from a flooded Thai cave on Tuesday, officials said, bringing to 11 the number saved and raising hopes all members of the young football team who became trapped 18 days ago would survive.
Two more were still inside the cave but authorities were confident of getting them out by Tuesday evening through a claustrophobic network of tunnels that in some places were completely filled with water.
"(They) will be extracted today," rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters on Tuesday morning.
The hoped-for final chapter in an ordeal that has gripped the world came after elite foreign divers and Thai Navy SEALs escorted eight members of the "Wild Boars" football team out of the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand on Sunday and Monday.
Then on Tuesday afternoon multiple sources involved in the operation said three more had been escorted out. However it was not clear if the 25-year-old coach was among them or if he remained inside.
The 12 boys, aged from 11 to 16, and their coach, ventured into the cave on June 23 after football practice and got caught deep inside when heavy rains caused flooding that trapped them on a muddy ledge.
10th person rescued
A tenth person was rescued on Tuesday. A witness saw two people being carried out of the Tham Luang cave on stretchers. They were the first two to be taken out on Tuesday, the third day of the rescue operation.
Eight of the boys were brought out on stretchers over the first two days - four on Sunday and four on Monday.
Officials were not immediately available to comment on who had been brought out.
The head of the operation, Narongsak Osottanakorn, said earlier the final operation would be "more challenging" because one more survivor would be brought out, along with three Navy SEALs who have been accompanying them.
The rescuers have been learning from experience and were two hours faster in bringing the second batch of survivors out on Monday. However, scattered monsoon rains continued to risk percolating through the limestone cave walls to flood the tunnels with fast-flowing water.
A crack team of foreign divers and Thai Navy SEALS has been guiding the boys out through nearly 4 km of sometimes submerged, pitch-dark channels.
9th person rescued
A ninth person has been rescued from a flooded Thai cave on Tuesday, with an ambulance seen leaving the site of the Thai cave where divers are carrying out what they hope is a final mission to bring out four boys and their football coach still trapped deep inside.
At least nine ambulances have been waiting at the site after the leader of the rescue operation said Tuesday's aim was to bring out all five as well as a medic and three Thai Navy SEALS, who have been with the trapped boys.
Officials have generally waited hours to confirm rescues. Tuesday's operation began just after 10am.
In the past two days, eight boys were rescued and are now in a hospital isolation ward while they are tested for any possible infections. Medical experts say they are in high spirits and generally healthy.
Diver hails 'incredibly strong' Thai cave boys
A foreign diver involved in the mission to save 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded Thai cave has hailed the children as "incredibly strong", and described their treacherous escape journey as unprecedented.
"They are getting forced to do something that no kid has ever done before. It is not in any way normal for kids to go cave diving at age 11," Ivan Karadzic, who runs a diving business in Thailand, told the BBC in an interview that was published online on Tuesday.
"They are diving in something considered (an) extremely hazardous environment in zero visibility, the only light that is in there is the torch light we bring our self."
The boys, aged from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, ventured into the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand on June 23 after football practice and became trapped when heavy rains flooded the cave.
Two British divers found them nine days later huddled on a muddy ledge in pitch darkness more than four kilometres inside the cave system.
Authorities then gathered 90 divers, 50 of them foreigners, to help extract the boys out of a claustrophobic tunnel network that in some places was completely filled with water and so narrow that they could only be squeezed through.
Conditions were so dangerous that a retired Thai Navy SEAL died on Friday while trying to lay out oxygen tanks underwater in a tunnel, and the rescue chief at one point dubbed the operation "Mission Impossible".
Adding to the dangers, most of the boys could not swim, and none had scuba diving experience.
However, the divers escorted eight of the boys out on Sunday and Monday, and authorities said they were aiming to extract the remaining members of the group on Tuesday.
Karadzic, who the BBC reported was stationed near a difficult stretch of the cave about half-way along the escape route to replace oxygen tanks and help guide people through, said the rescue workers had feared the worst.
"We were obviously very afraid of any kind of panic from the divers," he said, adding he was in awe of the boys' ability to stay calm.
"I cannot understand how cool these small kids are, you know? Thinking about how they've been kept in a small cave for two weeks, they haven't seen their mums. Incredibly strong kids. Unbelievable almost."
Final rescue mission underway
Divers are carrying out what they hope is a final mission to save four boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than two weeks, the rescue leader said on Tuesday, as health experts gave the eight already brought out a chocolate treat and described them as being in good spirits.
Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said on Tuesday's intricate and high-risk operation began just after 10am and involves 19 divers. A medic and three Thai Navy SEALs who have stayed with the boys on a small, dry shelf deep in the flooded cave will also come out, he said.
"We expect that if there is no unusual condition ... the four boys, one coach, the doctor, and three SEALs who have been with the boys since the first day will come out today," he told a news conference to loud cheering.
Nargonsak said this phase may take longer than the previous two rescue missions, the longer, first missing taking 11 hours.
The eight boys brought out by divers over the previous two days are in "high spirits" and have strong immune systems because they are soccer players, a senior health official said.
Doctors were being cautious because of the infection risk and were isolating the boys in the hospital. They did get a treat, however: bread with chocolate spread that they'd requested.
The plight of the boys and their coach has riveted Thailand and much of the world - from the heart-sinking news they were missing to the first flickering video of the huddle of anxious yet smiling boys when they were found 10 days later by a pair of British divers. They were trapped in the Tham Luan Nang Non cave that became flooded by monsoon rains while they were exploring it after a soccer practice on June 23.
At a news conference, Jedsada Chokdumrongsuk, permanent secretary at the Public Health Ministry, said the first four boys rescued, aged 12 to 16, are now able to eat normal food, though they can't yet take the spicy dishes favoured by many Thais.
Two of the boys possibly have a lung infection but all eight are generally "healthy and smiling," he said.
"The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems," Jedsada said.
"Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them."
It could be at least seven days before they can be released from hospital, Jedsada told a news conference.
Family members have seen at least some of the boys from behind a glass isolation barrier, and Jedsada said doctors may let the boys walk around their beds Tuesday.
It was clear doctors were taking a cautious approach. Jedsada said they were uncertain what type of infections the boys could face "because we have never experienced this kind of issue from a deep cave."
If medical tests show no dangers, after another two days parents will be able to enter the isolation area dressed in sterilised clothing and staying 2 meters away from the boys, said Tosthep Bunthong, Chiang Rai Public Health Chief.
The second group of four rescued on Monday are aged 12 to 14.
Four ambulances and a convoy of other vehicles arrived at the cave site Tuesday morning to prepare for the third phase of the rescue.
Heavy rains in the morning cleared during the day, a reassuring sign for rescuers who have feared monsoon rains could imperil the rescue.
Officials scotched any chance of using tech billionaire Elon Musk's mini sub made of rocket parts to rescue the remaining boys.
Narongsak said he was grateful for Musk's support but the equipment was impractical for the rescue mission.
Musk on Tuesday visited the cave and posted pictures and videos online. He said he left the equipment there in case rescuers could use it in the future.
8 saved in good health
Mae Sai: The first eight boys rescued from a Thai cave are in good mental and physical health and are asking for chocolate, officials said on Tuesday, although two were on antibiotics after being tested for pneumonia.
"Everyone is in a good mental state," Jesada Chokedamrongsuk, permanent secretary of the public health ministry, told reporters at Chiang Rai hospital.
"None of the eight boys has fever today," he added in the clearest update yet on the condition of the boys rescued from Tham Luang cave.
The boys, aged 12-16, were the first to be extracted on Sunday and Monday, while the final four and their coach spent a 17th night inside.
Experts had warned of possible long-lasting damage from the ordeal, either through psychological trauma or infections caught in the cave.
Jesada said the group had been given x-rays and blood tests, adding that two presented suspected symptoms of pneumonia but were given antibiotics and were "in a normal state". He said the group can eat, move about, and talk.
"They (all the boys) will have to stay in the hospital for one week to wait for their results and to see if anything changes," he said.
Thongchai Lertwilairattanapong, Inspector General of the Public Health Ministry, said the first four boys taken out on Sunday were eating normal and plain food.
"They're asking for chocolate. We can see that everything is ok as they're eating well," he said.
The boys remain in quarantine but some of their parents have been able to see their children through the glass.
8th boy rescued
Four more of the youth soccer players trapped for over two weeks in a flooded cave in northern Thailand were brought out on Monday, an official said, bringing to eight the number extracted in the ongoing high-stakes rescue operation.
"The eighth person is out and the operation is done for today," Sitthichai Klangpattana, flag officer to Thailand's navy SEAL commander, told The Associated Press. "Four boys were brought out today."
He didn't comment on the health of the boys or how well the operation had gone. After Monday's rescue effort, four boys and their coach were still inside the labyrinth cave. The official heading Thai cave rescue effort says he's not sure if the remaining five people will be extracted in one or more operations.
On Sunday, when the high-risk rescue operation to rescue the 12 boys and their coach began, teams of divers brought out four of the boys but waited several hours before confirming their safe rescue.
Thai boys: The mental trauma
Eight of the twelve football players trapped in the cave have been rescued after a harrowing journey past ill-fitted tunnels in dark, muddy waters. But what of those who remain? The young football players – aged 11 to 16- and their coach have spent nearly two weeks on a 10sqft ledge amid thinning air and scarce rations. But here’s what they need to hear, says Dr Mrabet Jihene, clinical psychologist at Life Psychological Counselling Centre: “We were here waiting for you.”
“The children must feel the support,” explains the doctor. “It’s all about support, dialogue and love. Showing to the kids that they are so loved and they are so precious the whole country was their just waiting for them to go out safe. And this feeling will help them overcome the trauma after sometime.“ Read the full report
Eighth boy rescued
An eighth person has been carried out on a stretcher from Thailand cave, reports Reuters, quoting eyewitness. It is believed that rescue operations have been suspended for the day. A total of four boys have been rescued so far in today's operation. There are five people still inside the cave, the coach Ekapol Chanthawong and four Wild Boars.
"2 days, 8 Wild Boars. Hooyah," the Thai Navy SEALs said in a post on their official Facebook page, referring to the boys and their coach by the name of their football team.
An aide to the Thai Navy SEAL commander also says four boys were brought out of the flooded cave in northern Thailand on Monday and the ongoing rescue operation is over for the day. The aide, Sitthichai Klangpattana, didn't comment on the boys' health or say how well the operation has gone.
The first of the boys extracted Monday was carried in a stretcher and brought by helicopter to a hospital in Chiang Rai, and separate helicopters and ambulances were seen heading in the same direction.
VIDEO: Thai emergency workers transfer a patient from a helicopter to an ambulance at the airport in #ChiangRai being used for the evacuation of boys rescued from a flooded cave #ThamLuang pic.twitter.com/0bQxMg6Qx2— AFP news agency (@AFP) July 9, 2018
There was no immediate word on their conditions.
WATCH: BBC News team see two ambulances leaving cave site amidst unconfirmed reports more of trapped team evacuated from cave #thamluangcave #thamluang #ถ้ำหลวง #13ชีวิตติดถ้ำ #13ชีวิตรอดแล้ว #พาหมูป่ากลับบ้าน #ThailandCaveRescue pic.twitter.com/UE1kB0aChx— Howard Johnson (@Howardrjohnson) July 9, 2018
Boys healthy and demanding fried rice
The first four boys rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand were in good health and demanding fried rice in hospital on Monday, the head of the rescue team said, as divers resumed operations to bring out the remaining members of the group.
The four boys, rescued on Sunday, were flown by helicopter from the Tham Luang cave to the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, located at the heart of Chiang Rai province, about 70 km (40 miles) away.
"The four children are fine. The children complained that they were hungry and wanted holy basil stir-fried rice," Narongsak Osottanakorn, the head of the rescue operation, told reporters on Monday, referring to a popular Thai dish.
Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda also said the boys were in good health. He did not give further details.
Officials have yet to confirm the identities of the four boys freed. Narongsak on Monday said their identities were being protected out of respect for the families of those still trapped inside the cave.
Officials last week said they would bring the fittest people in the group out first, but Narongsak later said that whoever was ready first would be escorted out.
7th boy evacuated
The number of boys rescued becomes seven as one more has been evacuated to safety from the flooded cave, Reuters reports.
Two boys rescued
A fifth and sixth boy have been rescued from the cave in northern Thailand where their football team and coach have been trapped for over two weeks, Guardian reported a short while ago.
Sources at the site said the fifth boy emerged before 5pm and was leaving the entrance. Minutes later, an ambulance passed the media centre a few kilometres from the cave, followed by a helicopter passing overhead a short time later.
About 6pm local time reports emerged a sixth boy had also been stretchered from the cave and was being treated in a field hospital.
Rescue workers were seen carrying a person on a stretcher away from a cave complex and into a waiting ambulance, a witness said.
Thai authorities are being tight-lipped about who was inside an ambulance seen leaving the site of a flooded cave Monday, as they were the night before when four of the 13 people trapped inside the underground complex were rescued, reports AP.
Multiple calls to senior government officials and military personnel leading the operation to rescue the members of the youth soccer team rang unanswered Monday evening.
Thai public television has aired live video of a medivac helicopter landing close to a hospital in the city of Chiang Rai, near the site of the cave where a youth soccer team has been trapped for more than two weeks.
Medics appeared to remove one person on a stretcher but hid the person's identity behind multiple white umbrellas. An ambulance was seen leaving the scene immediately afterward early Monday evening.
Elon Musk's mini-sub
Tesla boss Elon Musk has tweeted a video of a mini-sub that is capable of navigating narrow pathways.
Simulating maneuvering through a narrow passage pic.twitter.com/2z01Ut3vxJ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2018
Less than an hour earlier, an ambulance with flashing lights had left the cave complex, hours after the start of the second phase of an operation to rescue the soccer team.
A mission to rescue a group of boys and their football coach trapped in the flooded cave since June 23 resumed on Monday. The first four boys, from the group of 13, including the coach, were rescued on Sunday.
The route to safety
4 rescued to be isolated
Four members of a Thai youth football team guided out of a flooded cave complex will not be allowed physical contact with their parents until the risk of infection has gone, the chief of the rescue bid said on Monday.
"They (the four) will be kept away from their parents for a while because we are concerned about infections," Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters, adding doctors will decide on family visits "at a distance or through glass."
'Hope to hear good news'
Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said the second phase began at 11am and authorities "hope to hear good news in the next few hours." Nine people remain trapped in the cave.
Authorities have been rushing to extract the boys, ages 11-16, and their coach from the cave as monsoon rains bore down on the mountainous region in far northern Chiang Rai province. Authorities said heavy downpours overnight did not raise water levels in the cave, where workers continue to pump water out.
The four boys pulled from the cave Sunday in an urgent and dangerous operation that involved them diving through the cave's tight and twisting passages were in good health. Still, they were undergoing medical checks in a hospital and were not yet allowed close contact with relatives due to fear of infections, who were able to see them through a glass partition.
Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda had said early on Monday that the same divers who took part in Sunday's rescue would return to extricate the others as they know the cave conditions and what to do. He had said fresh air tanks needed to be laid along the underwater route. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was scheduled to visit the site later on Monday.
Thai cave rescue bid enters day two
A treacherous rescue bid to free a youth football team trapped in a flooded Thai cave entered its second day on Monday, with nine of the "Wild Boars" still inside after elite divers guided four out.
Looming rain was one of the main enemies of the operation, threatening to flood the cave complex in mountainous northern Thailand, although a bewildering array of other dangers could also doom their safe return.
Thailand has waited anxiously for news of the safe return of the boys and their 25-year-old coach since they became trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex on June 23, in a saga that has dominated global headlines.
They spent nine days unaccounted for inside the cave, before British divers found the emaciated and dishevelled group huddling on a muddy bank.
On Sunday four members of the "Wild Boar" team were successfully brought out from the cave, after authorities decided they had to rush ahead with a rescue operation to beat monsoon rains.
They were guided by expert divers who plotted the hours-long escape through more than four kilometres of twisting passageways and flooded chambers.
Rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn on Sunday said four of the team - affectionately dubbed by Thai social media Wild Boars 1,2,3,4 - were "safe" but released few details about their condition or identities.
He said the extraction effort would likely resume early Monday.
"We've been working continuously overnight," a Chiang Rai government source told AFP on Monday morning, requesting anonymity, and confirming that there had only been a pause of the actual extraction operations.
With authorities releasing few details of the rescue bid, parents continued their agonising wait to be reunited with their sons.
VIDEO: Four boys rescued from flooded Thai cave on Sunday, eight and their coach still inside pic.twitter.com/jDLlOmPTsb— AFP news agency (@AFP) July 9, 2018
"I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today," Supaluk Sompiengjai, a mother of Pheeraphat - known by his nickname "Night" - told AFP.
"We heard four boys are out but we do not know who they are. Many parents are still here waiting. None of us has been informed of anything."
But she added she was "happy" at the prospect of seeing her son again.
To get the boys out, divers will be forced by the narrow passages to accompany them one at a time.
None of the boys have scuba diving experience and experts have warned they could easily panic while swimming underwater in darkness.
4 of 13 rescued
The mother of one of the boys reportedly freed in the northern Thailand cave rescue has said she is sleeping at the cave site as she waits for confirmation her son was among the first four children to make it out
Four boys were freed from the cave in an eight-hour operation on Sunday after spending more than two weeks stranded by water on high ground about 3.2 kilometres inside. They are recovering in hospital in the nearby city of Chiang Rai.
Authorities have not named the boys who had rescued - not even to the parents of the group, said Namhom Boonpiam, the mother of Mongkhol Boonpiam.
Mongkhol, 14, has been named by Thai media as one of the boys who was freed on Sunday.
Namhom said she had only learned he may have been freed from reports on social media, which the families are tracking from the cave site.
"I just heard his name, Mongkhol, and I was happy enough," she said.
She was sleeping at the cave site with many of the other parents and had not yet thought about what she would say once she saw him. "Let me meet him first," she said.
Ninety divers, 50 foreign and 40 Thai, are involved in the rescue operation, said an official. The first boy exited the cave at 17.40 local time.
Four boys among a group of 13 trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than a fortnight were rescued on Sunday, authorities said, revising earlier reports of six rescues.
Thai official heading the cave rescue operation says the healthiest have been taken out first and the operation is going better than expected. However, he added, rescue workers need 'about 10 hours' to prepare for next operation.
The first two boys emerged about nightfall from the Tham Luang cave complex after navigating a treacherous escape route of more than four kilometres through twisting, narrow and jagged passageways.
They were followed shortly afterwards by two others, leading to an explosion of jubilation on social media in Thailand and around the world as the rescued boys were rushed to hospital.
"Six of them came out," a defence ministry official, who asked not to be named, initially told AFP.
VIDEO: An ambulance leaves the rescue camp where some of the 13 people trapped inside the flooded #ThamLuang cave complex have been rescued in northern Thailand #ThaiCaveRescue pic.twitter.com/3vEfOUCCdv— AFP news agency (@AFP) July 8, 2018
Foreign elite divers and Thai Navy SEALS on Sunday morning began the complex operation to extract the 12 boys and their football coach as they raced against time, with imminent monsoon rains threatening more flooding that would doom the mission.
"Today is the D-day. The boys are ready to face any challenges," rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters near the cave site on Sunday morning.
The group became trapped in a cramped chamber deep inside Tham Luang in a mountainous area of northern Thailand on June 23, when they went in after football practice and got caught behind rising waters.
Their plight transfixed Thailand and the rest of the world, as authorities struggled to devise a plan to get the boys - aged between 11 and 16 - and their 25-year-old coach out.
The rescue of the first four was a stunning victory in an operation Narongsak had earlier dubbed "Mission Impossible", and led to cautious optimism that the others would also be saved.
Another official involved in the rescue operation said the initial kids who had been saved formed a first group.
A second group made up of the others had also begun the journey from the chamber where they had been trapped, a rescue worker told AFP.
The quick extraction came as a surprise after one of the operation commanders said on Sunday morning the rescue efforts could take several days to complete.
The group was found dishevelled and hungry by British cave diving specialists nine days after they ventured in.
Initial euphoria over finding the boys alive quickly turned into deep anxiety as rescuers struggled to find a way to get them out.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscored the danger of the journey even for professionals.
After a short deluge of rain on Saturday night and with more bad weather forecast, Narongsak on Sunday said authorities had to act immediately.
"There is no other day that we are more ready than today," he said. "Otherwise we will lose the opportunity."
Between the base camp inside the cave and the trapped boys were twisting, turning cave passageways with torrents of water gushing through.
The water in the cave was muddy and unclear, with one diver comparing it to a cafe latte. Ropes were installed to help guide the boys through the darkness.
Narongsak said Sunday morning two divers would escort each of the boys out of the cave.
VIDEO: The rescue mission chief says the 12 boys trapped in a cave in northern Thailand will "come out in groups, one kid will be chaperoned by two caretakers" as rescue efforts begin following days of preparation pic.twitter.com/dvveDWs4FS— AFP news agency (@AFP) July 8, 2018
Officials had looked at many different ways to save the boys and their coach.
One early potential plan was to leave them there for months until the monsoon season ended and the floods subsided completely, but that idea was scrapped over concerns about falling oxygen levels and waters rising too high.
More than 100 exploratory holes were also bored - some shallow, but the longest 400-metres deep - into the mountainside in an attempt to open a second evacuation route and avoid forcing the boys into the dangerous dive.
American technology entrepreneur Elon Musk even deployed engineers from his private space exploration firm SpaceX and Boring Co. to help.
Meanwhile rescuers fed a kilometres-long air pipe into the cave to restore oxygen levels in the chamber where the team was sheltering with medics and divers.
On Saturday, Thai Navy SEALs published touching notes scrawled by the trapped footballers to their families, who had been waiting for them agonisingly close by outside the cave entrance.
The boys urged relatives "not to worry" and asked for their favourite food once they were safely evacuated, in notes handed to divers.
In one, Pheerapat, nicknamed "Night", whose 16th birthday the group were celebrating in the cave when they became stuck on June 23, said: "I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don't need to be worried about me."
Chiang Rai acting Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (left) said 13 foreign and five Thai divers were taking part in the rescue and two divers will accompany each boy as they are gradually extracted.
The operation began at 10am and he said it would take at least 11 hours for the first person to be rescued.
The entire operation to get all 13 out of the cave could last 2-4 days, depending on weather and water conditions, said army Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakam.
Biggest danger in escape bid
The boys and their coach will have to squeeze through an extremely narrow tunnel in pitch blackness - the main "crisis" point that looms near the end of their treacherous escape bid.
Authorities have highlighted the tiny passageway near T-Junction, or Sam Yak in Thai, as the most dangerous element of the journey for the "Wild Boars" team that began Sunday morning, but there are many other potential pitfalls.
The rescue effort is likely to take two to three days to complete, Major General Chalongchai Chaiyakorn, an army commander, told reporters, adding it "depends on other factors like the weather".
Here are some of the challenges that the boys and their coach will face leaving the cave they ventured into on June 23, becoming trapped more than four kilometres from the entrance because of monsoon rains.
The boys, aged from 11 and 16, have no diving experience and some can not even swim. They have received training in recent days in preparation for the extraction effort, but they will have to swim using scuba gear through fast-flowing water in darkness, a challenge for even elite divers.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, have been trapped with their coach since 23 June. Reuters
The sliver of space is 1.9 kilometres from the shelf where the boys have been sheltering above the waters. After energy-sapping efforts navigating jagged tunnels and clambering up or down rock walls for this distance, they will confront Sam Yak.
"The biggest crisis spot for diving is on the left from the T-Junction," said Narongsak Osottanakorn, the rescue mission chief, in a briefing on July 2.
"There is a tunnel that has a passageway going up and coming down narrowly and you have to turn a bit and it's very small."
After that though, the tunnels widen, the waters subside, and walking is even possible, according to authorities, with the rest of the journey expected to be relatively safe as they will have reached a forward operating base inside the cave.
Journey back to light
The journey will be a long one. The rescue mission chief, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told reporters on Sunday that the first boy was not expected to emerge until 9pm (1400 GMT) on Sunday. This tallies with previous estimates from officials that it would take the divers five hours to reach the ledge where the team is trapped, and six hours for the journey out.
The boys were found dishevelled and weak nine days after they ventured in. Although they have been receiving food and medicine since then, their lack of strength could be a crucial factor in determining their fate.
The water in the cave is muddy and unclear, with one diver comparing it to a cafe latte. The labyrinth has no outside light. The boys will be helped through the darkness by guiding rope, torches and the escorts.
Nevertheless, the poor visibility is one of the factors raising concerns about the boys - already traumatised after spending so long in the cave and having to swim underwater - potentially panicking.
"The mental side of this has to be one of the top considerations," Andrew Watson, an experienced rescuer of mineworkers, previously told AFP.
"Just one individual panicking can cause a problem," he said.
The operation was launched after several days of relatively mild weather, as more than 100 million of litres of water were pumped out of the cave.
Kobchai Boonyaorana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department of the Interior Ministry, told reporters Sunday that the water level in the cave had continued to recede, and that rainfall was less than expected.
But weather forecasters warned heavy rain was on its way, which could flood the area completely. They said there was a 60-percent chance of moderate to heavy rain on Sunday afternoon, and that heavier rain would continue from Monday to Thursday.
The only way to bring them out of Tham Luang Nang Non in Chiang Rai province is by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air. A former Thai navy SEAL passed out making the dive Friday and died.
Experienced cave rescue experts consider an underwater escape a last resort, especially with people untrained in diving, as the boys are. The path out is considered especially complicated because of twists and turns in narrow flooded passages.
But the governor supervising the mission said earlier that mild weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created optimal conditions for an underwater evacuation that won't last if it rains again.
Before announcing that the rescue was underway, authorities ordered the throngs of media that have gathered at the cave from around the world to leave.
How did this happen?
The boys, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach became stranded when they went exploring in the cave after a practice game June 23. Monsoon flooding cut off their escape and prevented rescuers from finding them for almost 10 days.
At war with water
Authorities had said that incoming monsoon rains that could send water levels in the cave rising, coupled with falling oxygen levels in the enclosed space, added to the urgency of getting those trapped out. Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy downpour.
Narongsak said Saturday that experts told him water from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square metres.
"I confirm that we are at war with water and time from the first day up to today," he said Saturday. "Finding the boys doesn't mean we've finished our mission. It is only a small battle we've won, but the war has not ended. The war ends when we win all three battles - the battles to search, rescue and send them home."
Doctor among experts in rescue efforts
A South Australian doctor is among the experts involved in the rescue mission to retrieve 12 schoolboys and their football coach from a cave in Thailand.
Dr Richard Harris, an anaesthetist with more than 30 years of diving experience, flew to Thailand last week.
The Adelaide Advertiser reported on Sunday that Harris was working with the Royal Thai Navy and medical experts in Chiang Rai as they prepared the evacuation.
Harris works for MedStar, the aeromedical retrieval service for SA Ambulance, and has cave diving expertise.
In 2011, he was part of the team that worked to retrieve the body of his friend the diver Agnes Milowka from Tank Cave at Millicent.
The website for the advanced diving conference OzTek says Harris has been involved in cave diving exploration in China, Christmas Island, New Zealand, as well as Australia, and has an interest in diving safety and accident investigation, especially in relation to cave and technical diving.
"He plays a key role in developing a cave and sump rescue capability in Australia," it states. "His professional life in the fields of anaesthesia, diving and retrieval medicine combine nicely with his interest in wilderness and expedition medicine."
Boys' notes to families
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families that were made public Saturday. The notes were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey to act as postmen.
One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: "Mom and Dad, please don't worry, I am fine. I've told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love."
"Don't be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I'm happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all," wrote Mick.
"Night loves Dad and Mom and brother, don't worry about me. Night loves you all," wrote Night, in the Thai manner of referring to one's self in the third person.
The most touching note came from one whose name was not clear: "I'm doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don't worry. Although, don't forget to set up my birthday party."
Another, of indistinct origin, asked their teacher not to give them a lot of homework.
In a letter of his own, the coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, apologised to the boys' parents for the ordeal.
"To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologise to the parents," he wrote.
An update Saturday from the Thai navy said three navy SEALs were with the boys and their coach, one a doctor. The 13 were having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and were being taught diving skills.
Food, electrolyte drinks, drinking water, medicine and oxygen canisters have been delivered to them. A major concern of the rescuers is that oxygen levels in their safe space could fall dangerously low.
Rescuers have been unable to extend a hose pumping oxygen all the way to where the boys are, but have brought them some oxygen tanks.
Letters from trapped boys tug at heartstrings
A sample of letters exchanged between the parents and the 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach who have been trapped deep inside a cave in northern Thailand for two weeks.
The letters were brought out Friday night by divers who made an arduous 11-hour swim back and forth to a chamber where the boys and their coach have been stranded since June 23. In the letters, the boys are called by their nicknames by their families, and that is how they are now known by the public.
A joint letter from the parents to coach Ekapol "Ake" Chanthawong:
"To Coach Ake,
Every dad and mom would like to ask Coach Ake to look after everyone. Coach Ake, don't blame yourself. We want you to be relieved. Every dad and mom isn't angry with you at all. And everyone understands and encourage you. Thank you for looking after the boys. Coach Ake went inside with them then you must come out, bringing them out safely as well."
Ake's reply to the parents:
"To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crews are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologise to the parents."
Ake's letter to his own aunt and grandmother:
"To my aunt and grandmother, I am doing well, please don't be too worried about me. Take care of yourselves. Aunt. Please tell grandmother to make vegetable dip and pork rind. Once I'm out, I'll go eat. Love everyone."
A letter to Night, 14, from his parents:
Dad and mom are waiting to set up your birthday party. Quickly make yourself healthy. Mom knows that you can do it. You don't have to think too much. Dad, Mom, Sister Nam, grandparents and all relatives give you encouragement always. Dad and mom love you.
Dad Boon, Mom O"
Night's reply: "Night loves Dad and mom and brother, don't worry about me. Night loves you all."
A letter to Adul, 14, from his parents:
Dad and mom want to see your face. Dad and mom pray for you and friends so we can see you soon. After coming out of the cave, you must say thank to every officer. We want you to trust in God. Don't be worried. Dad and mom are waiting until you come out."
Adul's reply: "Right now you don't have to worry about us. I miss you all, I want to leave quickly."
An addendum to coach Ake was included: "And for coach Ake, thank you for looking after the boys and led them to stay safely during the time of living in darkness."
How a 25-year-old former monk kept the Thai football team alive
The head coach of the Thai soccer team spent the morning of June 23 preparing his young assistant for an important task: looking out for the boys by himself.
Nopparat Khanthavong, the 37-year-old head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soccer team, had an appointment that morning. Ekapol Chanthawong, his assistant, was to take the younger boys to a football field nestled by the Doi Nang Non mountain range, a formation with numerous waterfalls and caves that straddles the Thai-Myanmar border.
"Make sure you ride your bicycle behind them when you are traveling around, so you can keep a lookout," he wrote in a Facebook message he shared with The Washington Post. Ekapol coaches the younger boys, so Nopparat told him to bring some of the boys from the older team for additional eyes.
"Take care," he wrote.
The hours that followed kicked off a chain of events that has riveted the world: a dramatic search and rescue that found the boys alive nine days later, huddled on a small, muddy patch surrounded by floodwaters. Attention has focused on the only adult, 25-year-old former monk Ekapol, and the role he has played in both their predicament and their survival.
Efforts underway to extract the boys have involved a swelling team of thousands of divers, engineers, military personnel and volunteers from all over the world - including Elon Musk's SpaceX - with no clear plan in sight.
Diving, the most probable method, is seen as too risky for now given the boys' lack of swimming experience, pitch-black muddy waters through narrow passageways, and the death this week of a retired Thai Navy SEAL who was among those readying the cave for the boys' dive.
Engineers have been searching for a way through the mountain's surface, hoping to drill down and reach them within the cave, but acknowledge it could take months and alter the cave's geography in the process.
As the rush to figure out how to rescue the group continues some have chided Ekapol for leading the team into the cave. A large warning sign at the cave's entrance raises the risk of entering so close to the monsoon season, they say, and he should have known better.
But for many in Thailand, Ekapol, who left his life in the monkhood three years ago and joined the Wild Boars as an assistant coach soon after, is an almost divine force, sent to protect the boys as they go through this ordeal. A widely shared cartoon drawing of Ekapol shows him sitting cross-legged, as a monk does in meditation, with 12 little wild boars in his arms.
According to rescue officials, he is among the weakest in the group, in part because he gave the boys his share of the limited food and water they had with them in the early days. He also taught the boys how to meditate and how to conserve as much energy as possible until they were found.
"If he didn't go with them, what would have happened to my child?" said the mother of Pornchai Khamluang, one of the boys in the cave, in an interview with a Thai television network. "When he comes out, we have to heal his heart. My dear Ek, I would never blame you."
Ekapol was an orphan who lost his parents at age 10, friends say. He then trained to be a monk but left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai in northern Thailand. There, he split his time between a working as a temple hand at a monastery and training the then newly-established Moo Pa team. He found kindred spirits in the boys, many of whom had grown up poor or were stateless ethnic minorities, common in this border area between Myanmar and Thailand.
"He loved them more than himself," said Joy Khampai, a longtime friend of Ekapol's who works at a coffee stand in the Mae Sai monastery. "He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. He was the kind of person who looked after himself and who taught the kids to do the same."
He helped Nopparat, the head coach, devise a system where the boys' passion for soccer would motivate them to excel academically. If they got certain grades in school, they would be rewarded with soccer gear, such as fresh studs for their cleats or a new pair of shorts. The two spent time looking for sponsors and used the Moo Pa team to prove to the boys that they could become something more than their small town would suggest - even professional athletes.
"He gave a lot of himself to them," Nopparat said. He would ferry the boys to and from home when their parents could not and took responsibility for them as if they were his own family.
He also kept the boys on a strict training schedule, according to physical education teachers at the school field where they practiced. That included biking across the hills that surround Mae Sai.
On that Saturday two weeks ago, Nopparat did not know where Ekapol would be bringing the young football team but thought it would be a learning experience for him to manage them on his own.
The older Wild Boars were having a match in the evening, he said, so he put his phone away. When he checked it at 7pm, there were at least 20 calls from worried parents, none of whose sons had come home.
He frantically dialed Ekapol and a number of the boys in quick succession but reached only Songpol Kanthawong, a 13-year old member of the team whose mother picked him up after training. He told Nopparat that the team had gone exploring in the Tham Luang caves. The coach raced up there, only to find abandoned bicycles and bags at its entrance and water seeping out the muddy pathway.
"I screamed - 'Ek! Ek! Ek!,' " he said. "My body went completely cold."
Information had slowly started to come outabout the boys' nine-day ordeal before they were eventually found on Monday night, through letters and limited communication between the coach, the team and the rescuers who have been with them in a small cave chamber.
The rush of euphoria that ran through the town of Mae Sai and across the world when the group was found has settled into a grim reality that neither Ekapol nor the 12 in his care may see daylight for days or even weeks.
Officials said Saturday that they have about a three- to four-day window in which conditions will be "most favorable" for the boys to attempt to dive out before monsoon rains hit and continue for months.
Urgent concerns include the amount of oxygen in the section of the cave that the group is taking refuge in, which had fallen below healthy levels. Officials are now limiting the number of rescue workers who can travel into the cave to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that builds when they exhale. Rising water levels, too, could force a quick extraction, but authorities say the boys are not ready to make the dive.
Friends, meanwhile, grow worried for Ekapol. He had the boys' complete trust, and it is unlikely that they would have set off exploring in the cave's chambers without him.
"I know him, and I know he will blame himself," said Joy, his friend at the monastery.
On Saturday morning, the Thai Navy posted photos of letters that the group had written to their family and the outside world. Ekapol's, scribbled on a yellow-stained piece of paper, torn out from a notebook, was brief, but included a promise and an apology.
"I promise to take the very best care of the kids," he wrote. "I want to say thanks for all the support, and I want to apologise."
Elon Musk team to assist in rescue
Millionaire Elon Musk proposed a high-tech rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand, using a "tiny, kid-size submarine" made from part of one of his space company's orbital rockets.
Some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand. Iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try. Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018
The chief executive of Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. made the suggestion on Saturday in a Twitter message, saying he'd received "great feedback from Thailand" as members of his engineering team descend on the scene that has galvanised the attention of people in Thailand and around the world.
"Construction complete in about 8 hours, then 17 hour flight to Thailand," he said in one of a series of Twitter messages. That timeline would get the mini-sub to Thailand early Monday local time.
The boys and their coach have been trapped in the cave system in the country's north for about two weeks, and heavy rainfall looms in the days ahead.
Rescuers are moving feverishly to lower water levels with pumps and prepare the boys, most of whom can't swim, for a perilous, hours-long extraction that would include diving through pitch-black water with scuba gear.
Musk, who studied physics, has floated a number of ideas on Twitter on how to bring the stranded team to safety.
On Saturday, he suggested a rescue employing "a tiny, kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull. Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust."
There was no immediate comment about the plan from Thai officials.
"Continue to be amazed by the bravery, resilience & tenacity of kids & diving team in Thailand," Musk said in another tweet. "Human character at its best."
Musk previously proposed using a double-layer Kevlar pressure pod or a long inflatable air sock to penetrate the narrow passageways and provide a rescue conduit. The tubes and pods are being built in the US, a spokesman said. Some equipment is traveling with his engineering the team and some will be express shipped.
"No need for SCUBA mouthpiece or regulator," Musk wrote about his suggested pods. "Training unnecessary & less susceptible to panic attack." Musk said they were being tested Friday afternoon in a pool with a subject who had never been scuba diving.
Any air sock or tube would have to be tough enough to withstand high water pressure - potentially two tons of force at a depth of 15 feet- and sharp rocks, said Douglas Hart, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Earlier Saturday, Musk tweeted there's "some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand" and that he's "iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try."
"Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks," he wrote. "Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does."
Thai Navy SEAL dies
A Thai Navy SEAL helping with the rescue operation died Friday after running out of oxygen, underlining the dangers of navigating the flooded cave system even for those with experience. Cave diving is widely regarded as treacherous and the stranded group is thought to have little swimming ability, let alone diving know-how.
Officials have also contemplated supplying the boys and their coach with food, water and oxygen to stay in the cave potentially for months until the monsoon ends and waters recede. But the expected heavy rains raise the risk of increased flooding and restricted access.
A spokesman for Musk has previously said that the billionaire's companies may assist by trying to pinpoint the boys' precise location using SpaceX or Boring Co. technology, pumping water or providing heavy-duty battery packs known as Tesla Inc. Powerwalls.
Thai cave rescue: a timeline
Here is a timeline of the efforts to find and free the group.
Saturday, June 23: The youngsters, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach enter the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand during heavy rains after football practice.
They are reported missing by a mother after her son does not come home that night. Local officials find bicycles locked to a fence and shoes and football boots close to the entrance.
Sunday, June 24: Park officials and police find handprints and footprints believed to belong to the boys. Relatives start to keep a vigil outside the cave.
Monday, June 25: Thai Navy SEAL divers enter the cave searching for the boys. Makeshift shrines are set up for parents to pray and make offerings as heavy rains continue.
Tuesday, June 26: Divers reach a T-junction several kilometres inside the cave but are forced back by rushing floodwaters that clog a narrow crevice near an elevated air pocket called "Pattaya Beach", where the boys are believed to have retreated.
Wednesday, June 27: A team of more than 30 American military personnel from the US Pacific Command arrive, including pararescue and survival specialists. They are joined by three British diving experts who enter the cave but quickly retreat in the face of heavy flooding.
Thursday, June 28: The underwater rescue is temporarily halted after downpours bring fast-moving floods inside the cave. Water pumps are shipped in to drain the rising, murky floodwaters and drones are dispatched to help find new vents in the cave roof.
Friday, June 29: Thailand's junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha visits the site, leads a meditation and jokes and cooks with relatives, asking them not to give up hope.
Saturday, June 30: A break in the rain allows divers to reach further inside the cave but they are still a long distance from where the boys are believed to be.
Sunday, July 1: Divers inch further into the cave, as an operating base is set up inside and hundreds of air tanks and other supplies are pulleyed in.
Monday, July 2: Finally, a miracle: the 12 boys and their coach are found alive late Monday evening about 400 metres beyond Pattaya Beach. Crowds at the teeming rescue site cheer the good news, but attention soon turns to the difficult task of getting the boys out safely.
Tuesday, July 3: Much-needed food and medical supplies - including high-calorie gels and paracetamol - reach the boys as rescuers prepare for the possibility that they may remain in the cave for some time.
Wednesday, July 4: Officials say the group are being taught how to use diving masks and breathing apparatuses. Teams pump out water around the clock as more rain is forecast for the days ahead.
Thursday, July 5: In a sign of increased urgency, authorities say expected rains may force a complex rescue quicker than first thought. A team of bird's nest collectors scour the mountainside in search of new openings into the cave roof.
Friday, July 6: Tragedy strikes: a diver helping to establish an airline to the boys dies after passing out while returning from the chamber. Saman Kunan's death raises serious doubts over the safety of attempting a rescue through the cave's cramped and waterlogged passageways.
Thailand's Navy SEAL commander says oxygen levels inside have dropped. He warns the window of opportunity to free the youngsters is "limited", in the first official admission that the rescue cannot wait out the monsoon rains.
Saturday, July 7: Rescue operation chief Narongsak Osottanakorn says it is "not suitable" yet to have the boys dive to safety. A scrawled message emerges from the team's coach, offering his "apologies" to their parents. The head of the rescue mission says more than 100 vents are being drilled into the mountainside in a frantic bid to reach the boys.
Sunday, July 8: Authorities announce that, with more heavy rain expected soon, the extraction operation has begun. Thirteen "world class" foreign divers and Thai Navy Seals enter the cave as the rescue begins.
They say the first boy is expected out at 9pm (1400 GMT) but that the operation would take two to three days to complete, and that the weather would also play a role in the timeframe.