Twelve boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded Thai cave for nine days were “found safe” late Monday, in a miracle rescue after days of painstaking searching by divers.
There had been no contact with the boys, aged between 11 and 16, since they went missing with their coach — aged 25 — last Saturday.
The massive rescue effort had been hampered by heavy rains that flooded the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand, blocking access to chambers where it was hoped the group would be found alive.
Late Monday Chiang Rai provincial governor broke the news of their rescue, delighting a nation which has anxiously followed every twist and turn of the effort to save them.
“We found all 13 safe… we will take care of them until they can move,” Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters, who broke into spontaneous applause and cheering.
“We will bring food to them and a doctor who can dive. I am not sure they can eat as they have not eaten for a while.”
Divers took advantage of a brief window of good weather on Monday to edge further into the cave, with the water levels dropping slowly but steadily every hour thanks to round-the-clock pumping.
They had hoped to find the “Wild Boar” team on an elevated ledge dubbed “Pattaya beach”.
But the boys had retreated 300-400 metres further as the ledge was submerged, Narongsak added.
The team’s travails are not over with a complex operation predicted to try to free the ailing group from the cave — which is still partially submerged.
Friends and teachers of the “Wild Boar” football team refused to give up hope of seeing the young players again.
Tilek Jana said he was eagerly awaiting his friend Prajak’s return.
“Let him come and let’s play (football) together, I miss him,” he told AFP.
Scores of divers — including foreign experts — have been sent into the cave with hundreds of oxygen tanks, establishing a base camp inside the chambers over the weekend.
Weary relatives have camped out at the cave’s entrance for more than a week, desperately waiting for news of the boys, while the head of the Buddhist clergy has urged prayers from a nation fixated on the fate of the group.
The football team went into the cave on June 23 after a training session and became stranded when heavy rains cut them off from the entrance.
Rescuers found their bicycles, football boots and backpacks near the cave’s entrance and discovered handprints and footprints further in.
At 10 kilometres long, Tham Luang cave is one of Thailand’s longest and one of the toughest to navigate, with its snaking chambers and narrow passageways.
A sign outside the site warns visitors not to enter the cave during the rainy season between July and November.