9 days of hell: Inside the race to save a soccer team trapped in a cave
When 12 soccer players and their coach ventured into a Thai cave last month, they left their bikes chained at the entrance. They expected to come back in a few hours.
But they didn’t surface from the cave that day. Nor the next day. Nor for another week.
Finally, after nine days, all 13 team members were found safe. But rescuing them may be difficult. It’s not clear if the rescuers will be able to drain the cave or divers will have to teach the boys how to dive to get them out.
Here’s what their grueling ordeal and the search efforts have looked like:
Saturday, June 23: The boys disappear
The weather is clear at around 1 p.m. when members of the Wild Boars soccer team chain their bikes to a rail and hike into Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the mountains of northern Thailand.
They wander deeper and deeper into the cave, past signs warning hikers to stay out during the rainy season that was just about to begin.
Then the rain starts pounding. Hard.
A national park ranger later notices the bikes chained up after the park closed. The search-and-rescue efforts start that night.
Sunday, June 24: Bags and sandals found
Rescuers find bags and sandals inside the cave; rising waters force the suspension of the search in the afternoon, according to the Bangkok Post.
Monday, June 25: Searchers find handprints
Rising waters block the way, leaving the group stuck inside the cave network, an official with Thailand’s national parks tells CNN. Rescuers pause the search in the evening because of flooding.
“Handprints were found around cave’s wall. But we still cannot locate the kids,” Thai Royal Navy SEALs posted on Facebook.
Rescuers use pumps to pump out the water.
Tuesday, June 26: ‘The water is rising all the time’
After a rain delay, the search resumes. Electric cables and ventilation hoses are laid in the cave, the Bangkok Post reports.
Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer now living in Thailand, tells CNN he is helping with the search.
“So far as I know, the (Thai Navy) SEAL divers … have gone into the main part of the cave, but the conditions are very difficult,” Unsworth says. “The water is rising all the time.”
Unsworth has explored cave several times and says water is the greatest danger.
“If the children have gone in too far, then the floodwater from the far end will be coming through,” he says. “The problem is 3 kilometers in, where there is a big pool of water (that) is getting higher and higher.”
Unsworth says due the lack of airflow into the cave, the conditions will deteriorate. “The next 6 to 10 hours will be crucial,” he says.
Wednesday, June 27: ‘The clock is ticking’
Time is running out, Thai Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda warns. “We will try to find other ways apart from underwater rescue because the clock is ticking,” he said. But he’s confident the boys and their coach are still alive, he said.
Rescuers try to access the caves from overhead locations, using new maps to narrow the search area. Nearly 50 pumps are now at the caves but water levels continue to rise. A team from the U.S. military’s Pacific Command and expert British cavers and divers arrive.
Thursday, June 28: Intense rain hampers mission
Torrential rain forces searchers to pause for an agonizing five hours. Power is temporarily shut off. Finally, crews are able to restart their efforts.
Drones, including some with thermal cameras, are deployed. Heavy-duty pumps are brought in to stem the rising tide of floodwaters.
Friday, June 29: Help arrives from China
Six Chinese experts arrive at the cave site in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, according to the Chinese Embassy in Thailand.
Climbers shimmy down a chimney into the cave complex, deep in the jungle to the north of the opening where the boys’ bikes were found. Drilling is underway in several points in the cave complex, primarily to relieve flooding.
Saturday, June 30: Australian help arrives
Australia also deploys a team of six experts from its national police’s Specialist Response Group. The team, which typically carries out land search-and-rescue operations, also has experience diving in flooded cave.
Sunday, July 1: The rescue mission continues
The international rescue operation — including the Thai SEALs, along with experts from at least six countries — has been working to reach a large, deep chamber, informally known as Pattaya Beach, where the missing boys are believed to have taken refuge.
Monday, July 2: Relief at last
Rescue teams find all 12 boys and their soccer coach alive in the cave, Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn says.
But the rescue mission isn’t over yet.
“We will drain all water out from the cave. Then we will take all 13 people out of the cave,” Osottanakorn says.
“We are now planning how to send (a) nurse and doctor inside the cave to check their health and movement. We will work all night.”
The team will likely need medical treatment, including fluids, rescue consultant Pat Moret tells CNN.
“Worse care scenario is they have to dive them out,” he says.
It will be a challenge for divers to take the children through the flooded section, Moret says.
“It won’t be anything like diving that most people recognize. It will be diving in what is effectively muddy water, possibly fast flowing, with no sense of direction.”