An atmosphere of gloom hung over the site of the Tham Luang caves in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province on Friday as rainclouds rolled in and news broke of the tragic death of one of the rescue divers trying to save 12 young boys and their football coach who remain stranded inside.
The death of Saman Kunan, 38, a volunteer and former Thai Navy Seal, came as a cruel jolt to the tireless efforts of divers, engineers and caving experts who have been working furiously to extract the children aged 11-16, and their coach, 25, since they were found sheltering in a muddy chamber on Monday.
Petty Officer Kunan died on his way out of the cave complex where he had been delivering air tanks to different locations along the treacherous submerged route that leads to the chamber some 2.5 miles from the main exit.
“His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back,” confirmed Passakorn Boonyalak, Chiang Rai’s deputy governor.
He had started his dive shortly after 8.30pm on Thursday and his diving buddy tried in vain to revive him in an underground cavern after he passed out, but he was declared dead at 1am in “Chamber 3”, a staging area for the rescue operation.
Kunan, who was a professionally trained diver, appeared from his Facebook page to also be an avid runner and cyclist.
The tragedy was a frightening reminder of how dangerous it would be to dive the boys, in a weakened state and some unable to swim, through a labyrinth of winding, dark passages which take even fit, expert divers five hours, using four oxygen tanks, to battle through strong currents.
“Inside the cave is tough,” said Thai Seal commander Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew. But he added: “I can guarantee that we will not panic, we will not stop our mission, we will not let the sacrifice of our friend go to waste.”
Thailand cave rescue – Chiang Rai recent rainfall
A tense mood settled on a group of divers mulling near the cave entrance on Friday morning, many of whom have taken leave from their jobs to volunteer their services.
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While determined to carry out their mission, some have questioned the high risk strategy of extracting the boys through diving out, even though they are currently being trained how to use scuba gear.
Bin Bunluerit, famous for working with the Ruamkatanyu Foundation, one of Thailand’s largest rescue foundations said on Thursday that it was too dangerous. It’s “not working,” he said of efforts to drain the floodwater from the cave complex.
Thailand cave rescue – Average monthly rainfall in Chiang Rai province
“The water is still not going down. If you want it to go down by a metre, it’s going to take up to a month,” he told Khaosod news. “Many people told me, please talk to someone, don’t make the kids escape through the water, it’s too risky.”
But deteriorating conditions in the boys’ makeshift shelter, where oxygen levels have dropped to 15 per cent, from a usual level of 21 per cent, are raising anxiety levels, particularly with a dire weather forecast for the coming week that could result in them being trapped for months.
Thailand cave rescue, in pictures
A key task on Friday is to lay a pipe into their chamber to provide more air. But a search to find openings above the roof of the cave, in the hope of lifting the boys out, have been stepped up.
A team of bird nest hunters and cliff climbing experts has been drafted in to sweep through thick foliage on the mountain over the cave to find possible new shafts inside.
But amid the sadness of the day, FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino offered a glimmer of hope for the boys.
Thailand cave rescue – Damn location
“If, as we all hope, they are reunited with their families in the coming days and their health allows them to travel, FIFA would be delighted to invite them to attend the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow as our guests,” he wrote in a letter to the Football Association of Thailand.
Video: Efforts to help rescue trapped football team
“It’s so sad to see where they are and we’re hoping and wishing that they get out safe and sound,” said Mr Stones. “They won’t see this but everyone, their friends and family, all of the boys, all the England squad, our thoughts are with them,” he said.
In his own video message, Mr Klopp said: “We are hoping every second that you see the daylight again. You’ll never walk alone.”
Meanwhile representatives for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk are in talks with the Thai authorities about possibly assisting the operation.
Tham Luang cave rescue options
Mr Musk’s companies could help by trying to pinpoint the boys’ precise location using Space Exploration Technologies Corp or Boring Co. technology, pumping water or providing heavy-duty battery packs known as Tesla Inc, a spokesman told Bloomberg.
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