Thai authorities say rescuers are inching closer to reaching 12 boys and their adult soccer coach who have been trapped inside a cave in northern Thailand with no contact for more than a week.
Narongsak Osottanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province where the Tham Luang Cave is located, told reporters Sunday that Thai Navy SEALs are closing in on a chamber where it is hoped the missing people have found refuge.
Divers have been trying to reach them for eight days since the boys, members of a soccer team between the ages of 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach were trapped inside the complex on June 23 after sudden rains flooded their exit.
Narongsak said “a full plan is ready” for their evacuation and transfer to a nearby hospital once they are removed from the cave. Paramedics, soldiers and volunteers successfully carried out an evacuation drill Saturday and are standing by.
In a joint press conference with the governor, Navy Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaew said his SEAL team is setting up a command center deep inside the cave and is preparing a plan to transport them through the flooded corridor. If found alive, their extraction will be complicated; they are likely to be malnourished and possibly injured.
“We still have to find a way to get them out,” he said, moving them from a main chamber to their command center inside the cave, then on to the entrance several kilometers away. “The important thing is that we want to find them today.”
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., Belgium and Israel.
The boys are believed to have entered the cave after practice with their assistant coach, 25-year-old Ekkapol Chantawong, on what was meant to be roughly a five-hour trek. But monsoon rains flooded several chambers, preventing their exit. Their bicycles and cleats were later discovered abandoned at the mouth of the cave.
Authorities brought in submersible pumps to drain the passage, but new rains kept filling the chambers back up. Rescuers then began looking for alternatives, scouring the hillside with drones and sheer manpower for fissures that could provide another entry to a large chamber called Pattaya where it is hoped they have found refuge.
A few days of clear skies offered some promise; by Saturday water levels were beginning to recede, and pumps began gushing out clear water. SEALs were able to dive further into the cavern than before, and a conventional exit through the mouth of the cave is being prioritized over efforts to descend through chimneys.
The divers have been rotating in and out of the tunnels day and night since last Sunday. But thick mud and debris made it impossible to see underwater, leaving them to feel around blindly for small openings in the cavern walls. Oxygen tanks have been set up in 25-meter intervals along the route to speed up their forward push.
Relatives of the missing children have been camping out at the site since their disappearance, sleeping on plastic chairs and a few cots while they wait for news about their sons. Buddhist monks arrive daily to lead them in prayer, while villagers make the trek to the cave’s muddy entrance with offerings.
Thai authorities are working around the clock in hopes the missing team is still alive, as the odds grow longer with each passing day. Captain Wuttichai, who oversees a team of Thai SEALs, says they will not abandon efforts until all thirteen of them are located.
“We’ll do our best,” he tells TIME, “from our hearts.”
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