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Thailand cave rescue: Boys appear in new video, ‘I am healthy’

The teenage soccer team trapped in a cave system in northern Thailand will spend another night almost a kilometer underground, after officials coordinating the rescue said that they won’t attempt to move them before Thursday.

New video released by the Thai Navy SEALs Wednesday shows the boys wrapped in foil blankets for warmth, as they speak up one by one, introducing themselves and saying “I am healthy.” One says “thank you” to everyone who is waiting for their rescue.

While several solutions have been considered since the team was found huddled in a cavern Monday night, rescuers are working on a plan to evacuate the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, through the narrow, flooded tunnels, in full-face diving masks.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osottanakorn said it would be “difficult” to bring them out Wednesday. He said he didn’t want to provide an estimate on when they could be brought out and reunited with their families.

“All I can say is everyone is working very hard here. Everyone is working their hardest. They haven’t rested since day one.”

To keep the boys’ spirits up, authorities are attempting to set up phone lines inside the cave to allow them to talk to their parents.

However, attempts to install the cables have been unsuccessful so far, Maj. Gen. Bancha Duriyaphan said, as one of the cables suffered water damage while divers transported it “around small passages.” Teams are attempting to take in a new one.

“When the telephone line is ready, we will have relatives talk to them. The pressure will be immensely reduced,” Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakum, another military spokesman, said.

Ticking clock

It’s now been over 36 hours since the boys were first located by two British divers, and while SEAL divers have been able to reach them with food and medicine, conditions mean it’s currently too risky to bring them out the way the divers have come in.

It’s is a long, hazardous dive, even for the experienced Navy SEAL divers who are now in contact with the group.

Seven of the navy team, including a doctor and nurse, spent Tuesday night huddled in the dark with the boys and their coach, who have been trapped inside the cave since June 23. Initial check-ups showed the boys were in good health, and video showed some being treated for scrapes and mild rashes.

The divers are making the complicated dive back and forth to the small, cramped shelf where the boys are sheltering deep within the flooded cave complex and are feeding the group high-protein gels to get their strength up.

After the initial contact with the British divers — two volunteer specialists who flew in to help with the search — the SEAL team returned to give them a meal of grilled pork and sticky rice, accompanied with milk.

The focus is on getting the children ready for the dangerous journey ahead. On Wednesday, the children — some of whom can’t swim — practiced wearing the full-face oxygen masks they’ll need to wear to survive the journey out.

They’ve tried wearing the equipment and breathing with it on, but haven’t yet been submerged in the flood water, Osottanakorn said, as the currents are too strong.

The plan is to bring the boys out at different times, depending on their strength.

“They don’t have to leave all at once. Those who are ready can come out first. We are reassessing the situation daily. We have to see they are ready. Therefore if we found any risk we wont carry out the (evacuation) plan,” he added.

However, there remains a sense of urgency, as the unpredictable weather and the threat of further heavy rains that could further flood the chambers. The governor said water is still being pumped out of the cave “at full speed” to reduce water levels further.

A few days of relatively fine weather have given rescuers a window to prepare for the moment the boys eventually emerge from the cave. Soldiers dressed in green fatigues practiced evacuation drills, linking arms to form a human wall around the mouth of the cave, to offer protection for a time when the boys brought out into the open air and transferred to waiting ambulances.

Difficult rescue

Debate remains over the best way to bring the boys to safety.

Given their weakness after a week with no food, trapped in the dark, and their unfamiliarity with scuba systems, some experts say it’s too difficult to bring a group of novices through a cave system that has made even caving experts nervous.

Cade Courtley, a former US Navy SEAL and author of the “SEAL Survival Guide” told CNN that he “was part of a very special dive unit and this would be a challenging dive for me and my team… now you’re going to ask 11 to 15-year-olds — some of whom cannot swim — to make that same journey for the first time breathing air underwater?”

The rescue in Thailand is “one of the toughest I’ve seen,” Anmar Mirza, national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission and a rescue diver with 30 years’ experience, told CNN.

He says that bringing the team out the way that the divers reached them would be the “most dangerous” option.

“The most dangerous is trying to teach them enough diving skills to dive them out. It’s physically strenuous: in water, through blackout conditions, through tight squeezes for hundreds of meters.

“It’s something that skilled cave divers spend hundreds of hours training for after they have already been open water divers for quite some time. A moment of panic or loss of the breathing regulator can be fatal for the novice diver, and may also put the cave diver escorting him in danger.”

Rescue teams are continuing to explore the possibility of accessing the cave through chimneys to find an alternative route through which to evacuate the trapped boys.

Volunteer Josh Morris, who has joined local rescue teams exploring natural chimneys that may lead into the cave, told CNN that “different specialized teams” were looking “for alternative entrances in to the cave to see if there might be a way to provide an alternative to dive.”

Morris, the founder of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, added that the boys were trapped in a “master cave which is where all the water passage and everything leads, so there are a lot of entrances that could eventually (lead) into the cave.”

Another mooted option is drilling down to the cavern from above, but the boys are estimated to be sheltered between 600 and 1,000 meters below the hillside above. The possibility of a collapse brought about by the drilling is also too horrendous to countenance, Courtley said.

“The idea of drilling in also makes me very nervous,” he added.

“This is very soft and saturated, moist, muddy terrain. And if the area that they’re in that’s been keeping them alive should collapse on them, that would be a tragedy.”