MAE SAI, Thailand (TNS) — Elite divers Monday rescued four more boys out of a group of 12 Thai soccer players trapped with their coach in a flooded cave system on northern Thailand, bringing the total saved to eight, authorities said.
The perilous mission involved diving in arduous conditions in fast-flowing waters, at times passing through jagged, dangerously narrow tunnels. The first of the four boys rescued Monday emerged shortly before 5 p.m. local time. The boys were transferred to a hospital by ambulance and helicopter, and all were considered safe, according to authorities.
The first four boys rescued Sunday after being trapped for more than two weeks on a narrow ledge in the Tham Luang Nang Non Cave in Chiang Rai province, were "happy and healthy" and had eaten meals, the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn, said Monday.
"This morning they said they were hungry and asked for a favorite Thai traditional fried rice dish, Khao Pad Kra Prao (rice topped with stir-fried pork and basil)," Narongsak said.
Monday's rescue left the remaining four boys and their coach underground for another night.
Narongsak was confident Tuesday's planned rescue would succeed, but declined to say whether all four boys and their coach would be rescued that day. It was safer to bring out four at a time, he said.
Despite elation over the rescues and rising hope in this Southeast Asian nation, a downpour overnight and predicted torrential rains illustrated the urgency of the rescue effort. Authorities say the mission could take three to four days in a desperate race against the monsoon rains that could raise water levels in the cave.
Narongsak did not say whether the weakest or strongest boys were brought out first, although the decision was made by a doctor who assessed the boys Saturday.
The rescue mission, involving divers, engineers and experts from around the world, paused late Sunday and early Monday to let divers rest and give crews time to replenish air tanks and other equipment required in the tunnels. It paused again late Monday and was expected to resume Tuesday.
The boys, members of a soccer team called the Wild Boars, were trapped with their deputy coach, Ekapol Chantawong, 25, after they went hiking in the caves, a local attraction where they had been several times before.
Families held vigils near the entry to the cave, praying for the safety of their loved ones. After the initial rescue, parents were not told which of the boys was among the first brought out of the cave. But for some of them, news of Sunday's success raised hopes that the remaining boys could be saved.
The parents of one of the boys, Peeraphat Sompheingjai, 16, told his schoolteacher, Suwicha Jitbarn, 33, they were relieved that four boys had been saved, even if they did not know whether he was among them.
"His parents told me over the phone that they were able to sleep again," Suwicha said. Thai media named one of the rescued boys as Monghol Boonpiam, but there has been no official confirmation of that report.
Narongsak told journalists that the families were kept from seeing the rescued children Sunday and Monday because of fears they could infect the weakened boys, who were underground without food for nine days before they were found by British divers in the labyrinthine caves last week. But he said they might be able to see their loved ones through ward windows later Monday.
Monday's rescue effort involved 100 divers and experts including the 18 foreign and Thai divers involved the Sunday's rescue mission and started five hours earlier than planned, Narongsak said.
"Every factor remained positive — the weather, water level, the stranded boys' strength, yesterday's outcomes and all related plans. We are ready for today too and we will work faster as we are afraid of the rain," Narongsak told journalists.
Authorities held a meeting Monday morning to plan stage two of the effort, and to ensure air tanks and other equipment were in place. Divers had earlier fixed a cable and lights along the tunnel to enable rescuers to find their way.
The rescued boys wore full face masks and each was escorted by two divers, one of whom held a boy underneath him.
Earlier Monday, Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said Monday's rescue would be carried out by the same divers who carried out the earlier rescue, because they knew the situation.
The massive operation, followed around the world, involved 90 expert divers, including 50 foreigners. Millions of gallons of water were pumped out of the cave, flooding nearby farms but reducing water levels in the cave, and oxygen was pumped into the cave system.
On Saturday, Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian doctor with cave-diving experience, cleared the boys as fit enough to go ahead.
Visibility in the murky, swirling waters is often reduced to a few inches. One tiny passageway, Sam Yak, or T-junction, is considered the most dangerous part of the mission, where divers have to navigate a sharp turn in the passage one by one and remove oxygen tanks to pass. Even more challenging, few of the children age 11 to 16 can swim and none has diving experience.
The smallest opening is estimated at just over 15 inches by 30 inches. Even experienced divers can take five hours to journey from the ledge where the boys are stranded to the entrance of the cave.
After rescuers pumped out water for days, the water levels fell enough that sections of the caves could be walked or waded.
A volunteer diver, former Thai navy SEAL Saman Kunan, died Friday while placing oxygen supplies throughout the cave system.
The boys became trapped when they visited the caves after soccer practice with their coach on June 23. They had to retreat farther into the caves as heavy rains flooded in, blocking their exit. They were missed when their bicycles were spotted outside the cave complex.
The search began that same night, and international cave-diving experts joined the effort. It was nine days before the boys were discovered by two British divers on a muddy ledge, deeper in the cave complex than expected.
At first Thai authorities feared the boys and coach would have to stay underground until the end of the monsoon, months away, because of the near-impossible challenge of the rescue. Efforts to find an alternative entrance into the cave failed. Plans to try to drill into the cave complex were not feasible because the exact location of the trapped boys was not known.
Cave-diving experts, engineers, medical and military personnel from around the world flew in to help the rescue effort, including engineers sent by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and 30 U.S. Air Force rescue divers.
Musk tweeted video of a "kid-size submarine" that he hoped could be used in the rescue, although it seemed unclear whether the metal cigar-shaped object could navigate the tight turns in parts of the cave complex. The video showed divers in a swimming pool simulating movement through narrow tunnels. In any case, the pod does not appear to be needed, with the rescue mission underway.