MAE SAI, Thailand — Multiple attempts to locate 12 boys and their soccer coach missing in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand for nearly two days have failed, but officials said Monday they believe they’re still alive.
The boys, aged 11-15, are believed to have entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province with their 25-year-old coach late Saturday afternoon. A mother reported that her son did not return from soccer practice that day, setting off the search.
“We are still searching right now,” Chote Narin, an officer at Mae Sai district police station, said Monday afternoon. “We’ve found traces but no people yet.”
He said footprints and handprints were found inside the cave complex and that officials believe the boys are still alive. He said the fact that they’re athletes should help them endure the situation.
Navy SEAL divers were trying to reach a large chamber deep inside the cave complex where officials thought the students might be. The chamber is about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the entrance of the cave, which is thought to be about 6-8 kilometers (4-5 miles) long.
The cave, cut into a mountainside in far northern Thailand near the border with Myanmar, is a local tourist attraction but can flood severely during the rainy season, which runs from June to October. Rain continued to fall in the area Monday afternoon and officials said parts of the cave were flooded under at least 5 meters (16 feet) of water.
Kamolchai Kotcha, an official at the forest park where the cave is located, said Monday morning that attempts to reach the chamber had failed as the passage is extremely small, “flooded and covered with sand and mud.”
“Right now, our family is hoping that the children trapped inside will have formed a group and are safe and waiting for officials to go in and save them in time. That’s what I’m hoping,” Noppadol Kantawong, the father of one of the missing boys, told Thai PBS television on Sunday.
Thai television showed bicycles, backpacks and soccer cleats left at the entrance of the cave. The area was filled with soldiers and rescue personnel. Buddhist monks offered prayers.
According to Kamolchai, tourists trapped in the cave by past floods have been rescued after the water receded a few days later.
In “The Caves of Northern Thailand,” an online guidebook last updated this year, the cave is described as only explorable from November to June due to flooding. It says the cave has an “impressive entrance chamber” that is about 80 meters (260 feet) long and leads to an easy walk along “spacious passageways” that last for about a kilometer (half a mile).
“At the end of the marked path the passage enters a series of chambers, boulder collapses and boulder chokes where route finding can be difficult,” it says.
After a few hundred meters (yards), the cave narrows to a passage 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) high, it says. After that area, the cave splits off into different directions, including several that lead to other chambers, pools of water or places with high “avens,” shafts that reach the surface.
Chote, of the Mae Sai police, said a helicopter was sent Monday afternoon to survey at least one of those shafts.
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