An operation to evacuate Thailand's trapped boys has started, according to officials. A lack of heavy rainfall has helped keep the water level at bay, but with heavy rain in the forecast time is running out.
Officials overseeing plans to rescue 12 boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand have said the extraction operation has begun.
"Today is the D-day," rescue chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said. "The boys are ready to face any challenges."
The operation will take two to three days to complete, according to officials. Reporters camped out near the cave speculated earlier that the operation would begin shortly after officials cleared the cave entrance on Sunday morning to allow divers and medics to enter the complex.
"Everyone who is not involved with the operations has to get out of the area immediately," police announced via loudspeaker. "From the situation assessment, we need to use the area to help victims."
'Perfect' rescue conditions
Before the announcement, Osottanakorn had said the situation was ideal for initiating the mission. "Now and in the next three or four days, the conditions are perfect in terms of the water, the weather and the boys' health," he said.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their coach have been trapped in Tham Luang cave since flash floods cut off their escape on June 23.
Divers found the group nearly 10 days later, and rescuers have since been draining the cave in preparation for a rescue that would see the boys and their coach dive through dangerous submerged passageways to the cave entrance.
The boys and their coach were trapped after flooding cut them off from the cave entrance
'We are at war with water'
A lack of heavy rainfall has helped keep the water level at bay, Osatanakorn said, but downpours expected in the next several days could undo much of their work and jeopardize the mission.
"The plan that I've held on to from the beginning is that we have to bring the kids out and the determining factor of this plan is to have as little water as possible," he said.
A brief torrential downpour on Saturday evening underscored the dangers of waiting too long. "We are at war with water and time from the first day up to today," he said.
The governor said falling oxygen levels and increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the cave have also begun to worry officials.
"In a confined space, if the oxygen drops to 12 percent, the human body starts to slow down and people can fall unconscious," Narongsak said.
Rescuers have so far failed to place a pipe into the cave to supply fresh air to the group. Divers have been able to bring them oxygen tanks, as well as food supplies and medicine.
Despite the urgency of the situation, officials had warned that the boys were not yet ready to dive out of the cave due to a lack of dive training.
Elon Musk offers help
Officials have also been exploring an alternative rescue plan involving extraction through holes bored into the side of the hill above the cave.
More than 100 exploratory holes have been bored, but officials have said they were still discussing the best drilling angles to reach the chamber were the group is stranded.
US billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk told followers on Twitter that he had sent engineers from his Boring Company to Thailand to try and help the rescue effort.
Navy SEALs publish boys' notes
Thai Navy SEAL divers on Saturday published handwritten notes by the boys reassuring their families that they were safe.
"I'm happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Love you all," wrote Mick.
"I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister," wrote Pheerapat. "You don't need to be worried about me."
amp/cmk (AFP, Reuters, AP)