Time is running out for the 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave. Rescuers are poised to help, but a safe exit is more precarious than it may seem.
MAE SAI, Thailand — The soccer coach trapped in a Thai cave with 12 boys for nearly two weeks apologized to their parents in a handwritten note released Saturday, promising to take care of the children during the rescue mission “as best as I can.”
In a letter sent through divers, 25-year-old Ekapol Chanthawong, tried to reassure the concerned parents, adding: “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.”
Chanthawong, the assistant coach of the Wild Boars, has been the subject of seething criticism for leading the boys into the predicament — and accolades for his subsequent efforts to keep them alive. Authorities say he took the boys deep into a massive Tham Luang cave complex in the northern Chiang Rai province after a game June 23. Heavy rains ensued, and the route out became flooded and impassable.
The boys also issued handwritten letters, containing requests for favorite foods and assurances to parents.
“Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine” wrote one boy nicknamed Tun, who added a request to get fried chicken when he got out of the cave.
“The air is a little chilly but don’t worry, wrote another. “Don’t forget to set up my birthday party!”
In a joint letter, the boys said they were healthy and wanted to go home right away when they got out. They also had a special request for their teachers.
“Teacher, don’t give us lots of homework!” they wrote.
While the boys struck a brave tone, their situation remains perilous as rescue teams race the clock to find a way to free them. Heavy rains are forecast for Sunday that could raise water levels in the flooded cave complex, making a rescue impossible.
The most likely rescue scenario would be to have the team swim out using diving gear with the help of expert divers. But, most of the boys do not know how to swim and are in weakened conditions. The difficult situation would make swimming across a several hour journey — a danger highlighted when a former Thai SEAL died on Thursday while delivering air tanks to the group.
High-powered pumps have been working around the clock to drain water from the cave. Authorities on Friday estimated they have pumped out more than 35 million gallons in the past week. But water levels in the massive complex are dropping extremely slowly.
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Teams of Thai and international divers have been able to supply food, medical supplies and oxygen to the team since they were discovered last Monday, but oxygen levels remain a concern. Officials reported that the oxygen level in the chamber where the boys are located has fallen to 15 percent from a normal level of 21 percent.
More than 100 chimneys were being drilled into the mountain in an effort to find new ways to reach the boys, Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters Saturday morning, saying some of the chimneys reached more than 1,300 feet deep.
However, the governor said they had not been able to locate the boys as they lacked the technology “to pinpoint where they are staying.”
Narongsak added that rescuers had been able to establish a line to pump in fresh air and had withdrawn some workers from inside the cave to help maintain oxygen levels.
A final rescue strategy and timeline has not been determined.
“Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect in terms of the water, the weather and the boys’ health,” Osottanakorn told reporters on Saturday. “We have to make a clear decision on what we can do.”
Around the cave site, the weather cooperated throughout most of Saturday, although thunderstorms are in the forecast for Sunday.
Rescue workers remained determined despite the uncertainty.
“The big problem is the rain is coming,” said Doytibet Duchanee, 40, a volunteer from the nearby city of Chiang Rai. “But I am confident we will get the children out alive.”
Rafael Aroush, 53, came to the site earlier this week to help out with translation and other tasks. “The spirits of the volunteers are focused on getting the kids out,” said Aroush, 53, an Israeli native who has lived in Thailand for 30 years.
With storms set to arrive, “some crucial decisions are going to have to be made soon,” Aroush said.
To rescue a young Thai soccer team and their coach who are trapped in a cave, Elon Musk says he is sending specialist engineers to help get them out.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is sending a team of engineers to assist Thai authorities with the rescue. The founder of Tesla, SpaceX and Boring Co. has suggested ideas on Twitter on how to safely reach and save the boys, from an inflatable tube to special escape pods.
Two members of an engineering team dispatched by Musk were due to arrive Saturday night, while six more set to arrive Sunday, said Thai government spokesman Weerachon Sukondhapatipak at a news briefing in Bangkok.
In tweets, Musk suggested the Boring Co. engineers could use advanced ground penetrating radar to help locate the trapped team, and might be able to assist in digging holes.
He also tweeted that he was working with the Thai rescue team on “an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try.” He said engineers were also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. “Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does,” he wrote.
Contributing: John Bacon and Charles Ventura of USA TODAY; The Associated Press
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