The effort to rescue 12 boys and their adult soccer coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand took a tragic turn Friday as a former Thai Navy SEAL lost his life during a mission to deliver oxygen deep inside the tunnels.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Samarn Kunan, 38, was found unconscious in the water early Friday after completing a delivery of oxygen tanks between the cave’s “chamber 3,” a large cavern where the Thai Navy has established a command center, and the flooded tunnels leading to the trapped boys about 1,700 meters away.

Another diver found him unconscious and attempted to give him CPR. He died around 1 a.m. local time from lack of oxygen.

Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaew told reporters that former SEALs have joined the rescue effort as support staff. Petty Officer Samarn graduated as a special forces officer and later resigned; he last worked for the Airports of Thailand (AOT) authority in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport.

“We thank the officers on this mission,” R-Adm. Arpakorn said. “Everybody knows this is risky, but the children are waiting for them. We won’t let him lose his life for nothing.”

More than 1,000 people joined the dramatic search and rescue operation that began on June 23, when 12 young boys, all members of the Wild Boars soccer team, and their 25-year-old assistant coach were trapped inside Tham Luang cave by rising floodwaters.

After a desperate nine-day search, all were found alive, but Thai authorities are struggling to find a way to get them out of the flooded complex. With monsoon rains approaching, water levels are at risk of rising further and worsening their dilemma.

Thai SEALs are on the frontline of the rescue effort; it takes expert divers roughly six hours to reach the group from their command center in chamber 3 and about five hours to return. The dive is difficult, requiring careful navigation of pitch-black, muddy water through stalactites and around sharp corners. Some passageways were so narrow that divers had to remove some equipment to get through them, while some have been widened to ease the passage.

The saga of the missing team has gripped the nation as rescue efforts snowballed from a small local team to a multinational emergency response. Forces from the U.S. and Australia have arrived to support Thai authorities, as well as technical experts from the U.K., China, Japan and elsewhere.

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