A round trip to the boys and back is taking some of the world's most experienced cave divers up to 11 hours to complete
The Thai boys trapped inside a flooded cave for two weeks are not yet ready to attempt a dangerous dive to freedom, rescuers said Saturday, after the death of a military diver underscored the huge risks they face.
The diver's death on Friday brought heartache for rescuers and anxious relatives waiting outside the Tham Luang cave in the country's mountainous north – and raised serious doubts over the feasibility of attempting to bring a group of boys with no diving experience out through the cramped passageways filled with muddy water.
But rescue officials fear their options are running out given fresh monsoon rains are forecast for the coming days.
Thailand's Navy SEAL commander on Friday said rescuers may have little choice but to attempt the tricky extraction of the group, the first official admission that the 12 boys and their coach might not be able to wait out the monsoon underground.
"At first, we thought the children could stay for a long time ... but now things have changed, we have a limited time," Apakorn Yookongkaew told reporters.
In an update in the early hours of Saturday morning, rescue operation chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said it was "not suitable" to make the boys dive to safety yet.
But he indicated that further downpours might force their hand and speed up attempts to extract them despite the dangers of carrying out such a gargantuan effort.
The 12 boys, who all play in a local football team called "Wild Boars", entered the cave with their coach on June 23 but were cut off by a sudden downpour.
They were found by British cave diving specialists nine days later, dishevelled and hungry but alive, on a ledge several kilometres inside the cave.
A daunting task now awaits both the boys – aged between 11 to 16 – and their rescuers.
A round trip to the boys and back is taking some of the world's most experienced cave divers up to 11 hours to complete, through cramped passageways and fast flowing muddy waters where visibility is highly restricted.
Many of the boys are unable to swim and none have any scuba experience.
The sheer danger was made all the more apparent on Friday by the death of Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL diver, who ran out of oxygen while returning from the chamber where the boys are trapped.
He was part of a team trying to establish an air line to the chamber where the children are awaiting rescue and lay oxygen tanks along the route.
"We lost one man, but we still have faith to carry out our work," Navy SEAL commander Apakorn vowed.
Saman resigned from the Thai military in 2006 before working at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, according to a post on the Thai Navy SEALs Facebook page, which said he was a triathlete and a "skilled and able diver". Thai social media filled with tributes to the fallen hero.
Asked how the boys could make it out safely if an experienced diver could not, Apakorn said they would take more precautions with the children.
But experts say the dangers remain high.
"It's very risky (diving out). Think about it, a Navy SEAL just passed away last night, so how about a 12-year-old kid," said Rafael Aroush, an Israeli volunteer helping the rescue bid.
The accident marks the first major setback for the gargantuan effort, which has gripped Thailand as the nation holds its breath for their safe escape.
Messages of support for the "Wild Boars" have come in from across the world, including from football stars in Russia for the World Cup.
The unprecedented rescue mission has been dogged by the threat of rains, which complicate pumping water out of the cave system. Intermittent rain hit the already muddy camp site on Friday.
Technology entrepreneur Elon Musk said Friday he was sending engineers from his SpaceX and Boring Co – which has experience in tunnelling technology – to offer help.
Other options under consideration are waiting out the monsoon – which could take months – or climbing out through a crack in the rock face, if one can be found.