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Thai officials clear media as cave rescue seems imminent

Thai soldiers try to connect water pipes that will help bypass water from entering a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand Saturday, July 7, 2018. Thai authorities are racing to pump out water from the flooded cave before more rains are forecast to hit the northern region. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

MAE SAI, Thailand — Thai authorities asked media to leave the area around the entrance of the cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped for two weeks, fueling speculation on Sunday morning that a rescue mission could be imminent.

Dozens of divers arrived at the Tham Luang cave on Sunday morning and officials set up more tarpaulin sheets blocking off the divers’ operating area.

Officials declined to comment but a news conference was expected at any time.

Thai officials said Saturday they are worried that heavy monsoon rain could soon make the job even more difficult and they may need to quickly rescue the boys and the coach by helping them make risky dives to safety.

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.

The only way to reach them was by navigating dark and tight passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents, as well as oxygen-depleted air. Getting out via the same route looks like the only feasible option, but a high-risk one, Thai officials say. 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.

If weather forecasts are correct, access to the cave could soon close again due to flooding from seasonal monsoon rains. Earlier efforts to pump out water from the cave have been set back every time there has been a heavy downpour.

Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said earlier authorities were waiting for two big groups of volunteer foreign divers to arrive this weekend, after which they will be ready to act quickly to bring the team members out when the conditions are right.

Narongsak said experts told him flooding from new rain could shrink the unflooded space where the boys are sheltering to just 10 square meters (108 square feet).

“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.”

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, apologized 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 apologize 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 are having health evaluations and rehabilitation, and are 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.

The death on Friday of a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, underscored the risks of making the underwater journey. The diver, the first fatality of the rescue effort, was working in a volunteer capacity and died on a mission to place oxygen canisters along the route to where the boys and others are sheltered.

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