Thai cave rescuers free more boys as operation gathers pace

Tham Luang caves, Thailand (CNN)Rescuers working at a cave site in northern Thailand have brought at least three more boys out of the flooded cave system Monday, according to a witness working with the rescue team, leaving five boys and their coach still inside.

The first boy to emerge Monday was seen on a stretcher just before 4:30 p.m. local time (5:30 a.m. ET). He was taken by helicopter and ambulance to the same hospital in Chiang Rai where the first four boys rescued Sunday by a team of international and Thai dive experts are being treated.

Two more boys left the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex a short time later and were transferred to a medical facility on site, according to the eyewitness.

The 12 boys, all part of a youth soccer team known as the Wild Boars, first went missing with their coach more than two weeks ago. Last Monday they were discovered huddled on a narrow rock shelf deep within the flooded cave system.

    At a news conference Monday, former Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn said the second rescue involved many of the same divers who brought the four boys out on Sunday.

    The second evacuation attempt started at 11 a.m. local time (midnight ET) after rescue workers got some rest and refilled supplies.

    Five ambulances were seen driving toward the cave complex on Monday afternoon, and at least one helicopter was also seen heading toward the cave entrance.

    Officials said late Sunday they’d need to pause the operation for at least 10 hours to fill oxygen tanks that had been depleted during the first phase of the rescue mission.

    The four boys rescued Sunday are recovering in a nearby hospital and are yet to see their parents. A family member told CNN Monday that they hadn’t been told which boys had been pulled out, and who is still trapped in the cave.

    A relative of one member of the soccer team said that the boys’ families had agreed to remain at the cave until all of the boys and the coach are brought out.

    Authorities have refused to confirm names reported in local media, but in the small town of Mae Sai where the cave is located, it’s all anybody is talking about.

    Mission paused for oxygen

    Officials said Sunday that it may "take days" to bring all 12 boys and their coach to the surface. Each boy is being accompanied by two divers and it takes hours to negotiate the flooded tunnels through the dark, murky water.

    Those still inside the cave are perched on a small muddy ledge 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the entrance, surrounded by floodwater and with a limited supply of oxygen.

    The most dangerous part of the journey out of the labyrinth 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.

    Rescuers are racing to beat the next downpour, which could further complicate efforts to remove the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach.

    On Monday, skies were largely clear over the site but rain has been forecast for at least the next three days.

    ‘A very smooth operation’

    The boys who were pulled from the cave late Sunday are recovering from their ordeal in a newly converted isolation ward at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital.

    Osotthanakorn said the boys were hungry and asking for a Thai dish of beef with basil and chilli.

    "This morning they said they are hungry, and they wanted phad kra pao," he said. "We have to quarantine them for a little while due to fear of infection."

    Doctors are monitoring them for any illnesses they may have picked up in the cave, and supervising efforts to build up their strength after they spent more than two weeks with little food and no natural light.

    "The next step is to make sure those kids and their families are safe because living in a cave has a different environment which might contains animals that could transmit any disease," a hospital statement said.

    Thailand’s Health Secretary said last week that on arrival at the hospital the boys would need to be quarantined for one to two days before being allowed to see their families. Visitors would need to wear sanitized clothes and stay two meters away from the children.

    Complex operation

    Late Sunday, nine hours after they entered the cave, elite divers emerged carrying four of the teenage boys who were quickly transferred to waiting ambulances.

    The cave rescue mission went faster than practice drills over the last few days, according to Osotthanakorn. Previously, the entire round trip through the cave network was thought to take about 11 hours.

    While the governor would not confirm the identities of the four boys, he said the first one emerged at 5:40 p.m. local time (6.40 a.m. ET), followed by the second boy 10 minutes later. Two other boys came out at 7:40 p.m. and 7:50 p.m.

    Shortly after, ambulances were seen racing toward the nearby city of Chiang Rai down roads that had been cleared of traffic to smooth the journey. Onlookers were seen watching and cheering as they drove by.

    Recharging tanks

    The twelve boys and their coach were discovered four kilometers into the cave complex by two British divers on July 2, nine days after they abandoned their bicycles and ventured inside only to become trapped by flood water.

    The rescue mission has been a huge operation, led by the Royal Thai Navy’s SEAL unit, and supported by a cast of hundreds.

    Among those are US military partners, British cave diving experts — including the two men who first located the boys a week ago — and rescue workers from Australia, China and other countries.

    US Embassy Bangkok spokesman Steve Castonguay said: "The US will remain here to continue to support this operation until all the soccer players and their coach have been rescued."

    CNN’s Judith Vonberg contributed to this report.

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