CHIANG RAI, Eight boys and their football coach who remain trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand waited for a rescue operation to resume on Monday, a day after the first four were brought out safely and whisked away to hospital.
The daring and dangerous bid to rescue the boys - aged between 11 and 16 - was suspended by the mission chief late on Sunday to replenish oxygen supplies and make new preparations, which he said would take at least 10 hours.
Divers had to hold the boys close to their bodies to bring them out and each had to wear an oxygen mask to enable normal breathing, authorities said.
Bursts of heavy rain soaked the Tham Luang Cave area in Thailand's northern Chiang Rai province overnight, increasing the risks in what has been called a "war with water and time" to save the boys.
Thailand has waited anxiously for news of the safe return of the boys and their 25-year-old coach since they became trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex on Jun 23, in a saga that has dominated global headlines.
They spent nine days unaccounted for inside the cave, before British divers found the emaciated and dishevelled group huddling on a muddy bank.
The story of the "Wild Boars" football team has gripped Thai and international media, especially with the World Cup in full swing.
"Football's Coming Home. First Wild Boars Out," a headline on one online Thai paper said on Monday, referring to a song chanted by English football fans at the World Cup in Russia.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, leader of the Thai military junta that seized power in 2014, planned to visit the cave site on Monday.
Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand's elite navy SEAL unit are the main team guiding the boys to safety through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.
Some of the boys are not strong swimmers and none has diving experience.
The head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osottanakorn, announced late on Sunday the first four children were brought out safely. There were no further official details on the boys' identity or their medical condition on Monday.
Narongsak said earlier on Sunday the mission may take three or four days to complete. Thai media identified the first boy to come out as Mongkol Boonpiem, 13.
A source inside the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital where the boys are being kept said their condition was "not bad" but said doctors were watching for signs of emerging conditions such as hypothermia.
A short official video released by the rescue operation late on Sunday showed four ambulances with their lights flashing driving up the muddy dirt track that leads to the cave complex.
It also showed about six soldiers carrying a stretcher towards a waiting ambulance. The stretcher was loaded into the back of the ambulance as medics rushed in the side door.
Narongsak was then seen shaking hands with a senior army figure and watching intently at the entrance of a long green medical field tent beside around 15 soldiers.
With authorities releasing few details of the rescue bid, parents continued their agonising wait to be reunited with their sons.
"I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today," Supaluk Sompiengjai, the mother of Pheerapat - known by his nickname "Night" - said.
"We heard four boys are out but we do not know who they are. Many parents are still here waiting. None of us has been informed of anything."
But she added she was "happy" at the prospect of seeing her son again.
To get the boys out, divers will be forced by the narrow passages to accompany them one at a time.
None of the boys have scuba diving experience and experts have warned they could easily panic while swimming underwater in darkness.
The lack of space has added complexity to storing enough canisters of oxygen along the route out.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscored the danger of the journey even for professionals.
The hordes of global and local media have been kept back from the cave and the hospital in Chiang Rai where the boys are believed to be under observation.
Night's relatives have said they believe the group went to the cave to celebrate his 16th birthday after a Saturday football practice and got caught as heavy rains caused the water inside the cave to suddenly rise.
A frantic rescue mission was hatched in the week since they were found.
Expert climbers, divers and Thai Navy Seals have mulled contingencies ranging from drilling an escape route through the mountain to waiting out the monsoon inside the cave.
But the rescue was prodded into action by the threat of a fresh round of rains and falling oxygen levels in the cave.
Source: NAM News Network