The coach of the youth football team that has been trapped in a cave in Thailand for the past two weeks has sent his “apologies” to the parents of the boys in a scrawled note handed to divers.
The “Wild Boar” football team went exploring in the Tham Luang cave network after a football game on June 23 and got trapped kilometres deep inside the cave system as floodwaters caused by heavy rains blocked the entrance.
The 12 children, aged 11 to 16, are accompanied by their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, 25.
The group was found dishevelled and emaciated, but alive on a muddy ledge by rescue divers on Monday, but rescue workers are still struggling for ways to extract the team from the complex cave system.
“To all the parents, all the kids are still fine. I promise to take the very best care of the kids,” Chantawong said in a note given to a diver on Friday and published on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page on Saturday.
“Thank you for all the moral support and I apologise to the parents.”
The coach’s role in the team’s predicament has split Thai social media. Many have been lauding him after reports he gave his share of food to the kids before they were located and helped them get through nine days in the darkness.
Others have criticised him for agreeing to take the young boys into the cave during the monsoon season.
Other touching notes signed by members of the team were directed to their families, many of whom have kept an anxious vigil outside the cave for a fortnight.
“Don’t worry dad and mum,” said a note from one of the boys who gave his nickname as “Bew”.
“I have been away for two weeks but will come back and help you sell your stuff.” His family are shopkeepers.
“Love to Mum, Dad and my little brother,” reads one note from 15-year-old Phiphat Photi – who is better known as “Nick”.
“If I get out, please can you bring me some grilled pork and vegetables?”
“I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don’t need to be worried about me. I love everyone!” wrote Pheerapat, nicknamed “Night”, who turned 16 underground.
The letters provoked a surge of emotion from families, who endured nine long days before their children were found and now face an agonising wait for a dangerous evacuation.
“I am so happy to see his letter, his handwriting. I’m almost crying,” Night’s mother Supaluk Sompiengjai, told AFP news agency.
“It doesn’t matter how long I wait, as long as he is safe.”
Conditions ‘perfect’ for evacuation
On Saturday, rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said conditions are “perfect” to evacuate the team in the coming days before fresh rains and a possible rise in carbon dioxide further imperil the group.
Rescuers have conceded that evacuating the boys is a race against time with monsoon rains expected to undo days of around-the-clock drainage of the deluged cave.
“Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect [for evacuation] in terms of the water, the weather and the boys’ health,” Osottanakorn told reporters.
“We have to make a clear decision on what we can do.”
While the oxygen level had stabilised he warned levels of “carbon dioxide are another factor” in considering when to move the group, in addition to impending rains, which could cover much of the muddy ledge on which the group are sheltering.
“The water level may rise to the area where the children are sitting and make the area less than 10sq meters,” he said, citing estimates from cave divers and experts.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, he said the boys were not yet ready to dive out of the cave, a complex and dangerous task through twisting and jagged submerged passageways.
But his comments 12 hours later suggest the thinking has changed, with water levels inside the cave currently managed to their lowest point by constant drainage.
Industrial pumps have been working incessantly in an attempt to clear the tunnels and, hopefully, allow them to escape by foot.
Over 100 chimneys drilled
More than 100 chimneys are also being drilled into the mountainside in a bid to possibly extract the boys from above, if it is deemed too risky to evacuate the team by diving out through the submerged passageways.
A team of bird’s nest collectors had scoured the mountainside for openings on Thursday.
“Some [of the chimneys] are as deep as 400 metres … but they still cannot find their location yet,” rescue mission chief Osottanakorn told reporters, adding the mission lacked the technology “to pinpoint where they are staying”.
“We estimate that [they] are 600 metres down, but we don’t know the [exact] target,” he said.
The boys are also being trained in the basics of diving in case the floodwaters force authorities into a sudden evacuation through twisting and jagged passageways.
Some areas in the cave complex are so narrow, the boys, who do not have diving experience, would have to swim through the muddy waters unaccompanied.
It takes rescuers, who are seasoned cave-diving experts, about six hours to reach the ledge where the boys are holding out.
On the question of dipping oxygen levels in the cave, Osottanakorn said on Saturday rescuers had managed to establish a line to pump in fresh air and had also withdrawn non-essential workers from chamber three – where the rescue base is – to preserve levels inside the cave.
The risks were underlined by the death on Friday of a former Thai military diver Saman Kunan, who ran out of oxygen while returning from the chamber where the boys are trapped.
Kunan had been trying to establish the air line to the chamber when he passed out and perished, raising serious doubts over the safety of trying to bring the group out through the cramped, waterlogged passageways.
“We lost one man, but we still have faith to carry out our work,” Yookongkaew said.