THAM LUANG CAVES, Thailand — Only one boy and his soccer coach remain trapped in a Thai cave, after rescuers pulled out three more members of the Wild Boar soccer team at the end of an 18-day ordeal.
The three boys came out in quick succession late Tuesday afternoon, and were receiving attention at an on-site medical facility, according to a Thai navy official with direct knowledge of the operational details.
In total, 11 children have been rescued from the depths of the Tham Luang cave system since expert divers entered the cave Sunday, armed with hundreds of oxygen tanks for the treacherous dive through narrow, flooded tunnels.
Nineteen divers entered the cave at 10 a.m. local time Tuesday (11 p.m. Monday ET), as officials said they planned to bring out all the remaining members of the soccer team, their 25-year-old coach and four experts who have been by their side since they were found on a rocky ledge early last week.
“I hope all four kids… the coach, and the doctor and three SEALs will be all out today,” Former Chiang Rai governor and rescue mission commander Narongsak Osotthanakorn told reporters Tuesday.
The boys were exploring the caves on June 23 with their coach when they were trapped inside by heavy seasonal rains. Tuesday’s operation was expected to take longer than the two previous operations, due to larger number of people still inside cave, according to the Facebook page of the Royal Thai Navy SEALs.
“Today is 10 July. It will be longer than previous ones,” the post says in Thai and English. “We will celebrate together finally. Hooyah!”
Rescued boys recovering in hospital
More details emerged Tuesday about the ages and condition of the children already freed from the cave.
All eight boys rescued on the first two days are being treated in an isolation ward in a Chiang Rai hospital. Medical officials told reporters that they’re healthy, fever-free, mentally fit and “seem to be in high spirits.”
Dr. Jedsada Chokedamrongsook, the permanent secretary of the Thai Health Ministry, said the first group of boys taken out on Sunday were aged 14 to 16. Their body temperatures were very low when they emerged, and two are suspected of having lung inflammation.
Families of the first four have been able to see their children through a glass window, Chokedamrongsook said. They were also able to talk on the phone. They’ll be allowed to enter the room if tests show the boys are free of infection.
The second group freed on Monday were aged 12 to 14. One had a very slow heartbeat but had responded well to treatment, Chokedamrongsook said. The hospital has sent test samples from the boys to a lab in Bangkok.
Authorities will likely look for signs of Histoplasmosis, also known as “cave disease,” an infection caused by breathing in spores of a fungus often found in bird and bat droppings, according to the Mayo Clinic.
They are all likely to stay in hospital for seven days due to their weakened immune systems. Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha visited the hospital Monday, and spoke to relatives and hospital workers.
The youngest member of the Wild Boar team in the cave is just 11 years old, and presumably still in there.
Divers involved in the rescue described treacherous conditions, with fast-moving shallow water passing through very narrow passages.
“This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. The lower the water is getting, the stronger the current. It’s stronger now. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
He’s one of a group of divers whose job is to transport air tanks into the tunnels for the SEAL teams. He told CNN rescuers face a number of challenges.
“We can only see our hands (at a) short distance. Secondly, the stones are razor sharp which is dangerous for our diving, (and) thirdly the passage is very narrow,” he said.
The diver said that the fate of the boys is weighing on the teams’ minds, and that they can’t help but think of their own children.
“I’m quite emotional as a father — everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave. Everyone is still worried — will they get out? Will they be sick? We are just praying for them to have a safe return.”
The divers told CNN that they can’t wait for the moment when they know all of the boys are out.
A dangerous journey
Rescuers are racing to remove the remaining five members of the Wild Boar soccer team from the cave before the return of heavy monsoon rains.
A few days of relatively clear weather has allowed them to pump enough water out of the cave to allow the boys to walk through some sections.
Heavy rain began falling Tuesday as rescuers worked to replenish oxygen tanks for the third mission inside the cave.
Osotthanakorn said Monday night that it would take 20 hours to prepare for the operation, but he cautioned timings could change depending on weather and water levels.
Rescue workers and divers are using the break to rest and prepare for the next phase of the grueling operation, which Osotthanakorn said involves some of the hardest diving in the world.
After days of planning, the first four boys emerged Sunday after an arduous journey. Each boy was accompanied underwater by two divers helping them navigate the dark, murky water in the flooded tunnels. Each operation has taken at least nine hours.
The most dangerous part of the journey out of the labyrinthine cave system is the first kilometer, during which they are required to squeeze through a narrow flooded channel.
Rescuers need to hold the boys’ oxygen tanks in front of them and swim pencil-like through submerged holes. Having completed this section, the boys are then handed over to separate, specialist rescue teams, who help assist them through the remainder of the cave, much of which they can wade through.
Another four boys were rescued Monday. Four boys and their coach remain in the cave, but it’s unclear if authorities will try to extract them in a group of four or try to take the five out in a single mission.