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Boys found in Thai cave could remain trapped for months

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SINGAPORE - They're alive and in relatively decent shape, given their ordeal, but many challenges remain for 12 boys and a soccer coach who so far have survived 10 days inside a flooded cave in Thailand and are still a long way from seeing daylight.

Divers who braved murky water and strong currents found the soccer team Monday on a dry ledge more than a mile from the mouth of the cave. The team remained there Tuesday, no longer alone and with food, water and medicine, as authorities tried to figure out how to extract them safely.

This is the season of the monsoon, with two inches of rain forecast to fall through Sunday. The monsoon lasts until the end of summer. The water in the cave is expected to rise.

The boys and their coach are not in danger of drowning. But the floodwaters cut off their path of escape. None of the boys can swim. Officials are considering giving all 13 of them a crash course in cave diving so that they can swim through flooded passages.

The joyous news that the soccer team was found alive has been coupled with vexation over what to do next. A thousand people at least are involved in the rescue effort, with help coming from around the globe, but technology is struggling to overcome the geology of the Tham Luang cave complex.

There is no simple way to save the trapped team.

Engineers have drained water from portions of the cave, but it is a vast subterranean cavern fed by a broad watershed. There is no sign that the efforts have lowered water levels to a point that would allow an extraction on foot.

Officials said Tuesday they might try to bring some of the boys out within a matter of hours, but they also said they do not want to take unnecessary risks. At one point Tuesday, officials suggested that the rescue could take months.

"We will not rush to take the lads out of the cave," the governor of Chiang Rai province, Narongsak Osoththanakorn, told reporters, according to the BBC.

The boys range in age from 11 to 16, and are with their 25-year-old coach. They went missing on June 23 while exploring the six-mile-long cave, which is in a park in northern Thailand near the Myanmar border.

The world's attention has been riveted to their story, which echoes the tale of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for 69 days nearly half a mile below the surface in 2010. Engineers there eventually drilled a vertical hole to reach their chamber, and all the miners were pulled to the surface one by one while a global audience watched on live television.

The members of the Thai soccer team were discovered Monday by two British divers, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen. In a video posted by the Thai navy on its Facebook page, the boys are seen huddled on a rock in mud-stained T-shirts and shorts surrounded by water.

"How many of you are there - 13? Brilliant," a member of the rescue team, speaking in English, said to the boys. "You have been here 10 days. You are very strong."

When one of the boys asked if they could leave the cave, the rescuers replied that they could not yet but that many people were coming for them.

"Navy SEAL will come tomorrow, with food and doctors and everything," the rescuer said.

The British divers described their three-hour round-trip into the cave as challenging because of the murkiness of the water. The rescuers had to fight a current as they pulled themselves through narrow, flooded passages by gripping the walls.

Members of the British cave-diving community say that Stanton and Volanthen have been involved in a number of high-profile rescues. Thai authorities called on them to help.

"I said from the outset, if anybody is going to find these kids, it will be these two divers, who are arguably the best in the world," Andy Eavies, a spokesman for the British Caving Association, told The Washington Post. "Compared to what Rick and John are normally doing, this is extremely easy diving, the only complication was the flow of the water," he said, referring to the current.

Volanthen, a computer engineer, told the Sunday Times in 2013 that the secret to cave diving was keeping a cool head. "Panic and adrenaline are great in certain situations - but not in cave diving," he said. "The last thing you want is any adrenaline whatsoever."

A limestone cave complex is like a giant sponge, said Amy Frappier, a professor of geosciences at Skidmore College who has done extensive research in caves. She said that when the water table is low, you can walk throughout the complex, but then the air holes fill up as the water table rises after heavy rains.

That appears to be what happened here: The boys and their coach walked into the cave, and then the rain came. They could not go back the way they had come because they would have had to swim through flooded passages.

Options for extracting the soccer team include drilling from the surface to create another exit. But experts have warned that this could take a long time.

"Caves are these complicated three-dimensional environments, so you don't necessarily know from the surface where you can drill a hole to get to a passage," Frappier said.

The boys and the coach are no longer alone. They've been visited by a doctor and a nurse who accompanied five other divers, and they've been given high-protein liquid food, Thai navy SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said, according to the Associated Press. The boys are being entertained, and a phone line is being installed to permit them to speak with their families, the BBC reported.

The fastest way to get them out would be to have them using diving gear. That's obviously risky. Yookongkaew said authorities "have to be certain that it will work and have to have a drill" to make sure "it's 100 percent safe," the AP reported.

Khaosod English, a Bangkok-based news organization, reported that officials are calling for donations of small diving masks that would fit the boys, as regular diving equipment could be too dangerous.

Officials say they have performed an informal medical evaluation and determined that most of the boys are in stable condition. No one has any critical injuries, said Chiang Rai's governor.

The boys and their coach did not know what day it was when the divers found them.

"After that many days, their normal circadian rhythm would start to break down," said Frappier, the scientist. "It will seem very bright when they come out into the sunshine. They may try to bring them out at night."

Authors Information:

Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, covering countries that include the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia. Karla Adam is a London correspondent for The Washington Post. Joel Achenbach covers science and politics for the National desk. The Washington Post's Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this report.

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