CHIANG RAI: Rescuers in Thailand scrabbled to clear a constricted passageway for divers deep inside a flooded cave complex on Monday as the search for 12 boys and their soccer coach entered a ninth day.
The divers from a Thai navy SEAL unit were within 500 metres of a chamber containing an elevated rock mound, nicknamed “Pattaya Beach” by cavers, which could have provided the boys with a refuge when heavy rains flooded the cave, blocking the way out.
Progress has been slowed as divers need to widen parts of a narrow 100-metre stretch that they were unable to pass through sharp bends without their air cylinders becoming jammed.
“This is today’s aim is to widen this hole,” Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osatanakorn told reporters on Monday.
“As of now we have not yet reached Pattaya Beach,” he said.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach disappeared on June 23 during an outing to the Tham Luang cave, which runs for 10 kilometres (6 miles) beneath the mountains in northern Chiang Rai province.
Aside from belongings left at the mouth of the cave and handprints on the walls, no trace of them has been found since.
National news bulletins have been dominated by updates from the mammoth search involving more than 1,000 personnel, including rescue teams from the United States, Britain, Japan and elsewhere.
Doctors say the boys could survive for days without food, but much would depend on whether they found water clean enough to drink.
The heavy seasonal rains hampered the search operation, with divers groping their way along the cave walls, barely able to see in the muddy water, but the pumps had helped to bring down water levels in recent days.
Narongsak said that an operations centre has been set up in the third chamber, about 1.7 kilometres (a mile) from the entrance to the cave.
“Yesterday we carried in 200 air cylinders. Today we aim to have 600 air cylinders in the cave, so the team can operate and stay in the cave without coming out,” he said.
Once more personnel are in place, a search will also be made of the right turn at the T-junction, he added.
As part of the rescue effort, search parties have been lowered down shafts on the mountainside, but it was unclear what progress they had made, or exactly where they were in relation to the “Pattaya Beach” chamber.
At Mae Sai Prasitsart school, where six of the missing boys studied, special prayers were held for the junior soccer team during the morning assembly on Monday.
“I am really worried, but I am hopeful because my friend is strong,” Thanakorn Ingsilapakul, 15, told Reuters.