MAE SAI, Thailand (AP) — Electricians are extending a power line into a flooded cave in northern Thailand to help the search and rescue efforts for 12 boys and their soccer coach stranded three nights in the sprawling caverns and cut off by rising water.
Rescuers led by elite navy divers were forced to suspend their search Monday night due to flooding but were to resume Tuesday.
The boys, aged 11-15, and their 25-year-old coach were believed to have entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province late Saturday afternoon. A mother reported that her son did not return from soccer practice that day, setting off the search.
The rising water frustrated efforts by the rescuers, including navy SEALs, to search farther in the cave, which is thought to be about 6-8 kilometers (4-5 miles) long and contain some large chambers. By Monday evening, officials decided to pull out temporarily.
Around midnight, Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn was with rescue teams and electricians working on extending a power line 1 kilometer (.6 miles) into the cave.
“We hope this would provide lights for work and fans for ventilation for the SEAL team,” Narongsak said. “Also, it means we can use electric engines to pump water out from the cave as well.”
Parents waited overnight in tents outside the cave entrance as rain continued to pour. Medics sat in a nearby tent as a few floodlights burned in the front chambers of the cave. The boys’ bicycles, backpacks and soccer cleats remained at the entrance.
“We went in a few kilometers and were able to enter a second chamber behind the entrance. In that chamber, there was an area where I saw shoes and bags left behind on the ground. We believe the students have gone further in,” said Lt. Naponwath Homsai, a SEAL team member.
Tuesday morning, relatives and others performed a ritual calling for those who are missing. They played drums and gongs and two relatives held fishing nets as symbols to fish out lost spirits from the cave. Organizer Jiratat Kodyee aid the ritual was a traditional way of showing support for the boys’ families.
At a prayer session the previous evening, some relatives walked inside the cave entrance, where their cries echoed off the walls. “My son, come on out! I am waiting for you here!” one woman cried. Another kneeled down near the bicycles and prayed, asking “Where is my child?”
Namhom Boonpiam, whose 13-year-old son Mongkol is among the missing, said she had been waiting at the entrance since Saturday night.
“I haven’t slept and I hope that all of them can come out, all safe and sound,” she said. “My son is a strong boy. I still have hope.”
Authorities have said footprints and handprints were found inside the cave complex, and that tourists trapped there by past floods have been rescued after the waters receded.
Officials are hopeful there are still safe spaces in the cave complex despite the flooding, Chiang Rai Deputy Governor Passakorn Bunyalak told a news conference.
“We’re confident that the kids should still be in good condition,” he said, noting that rescuers had seen nothing inside the cave to indicate otherwise.
Getting farther into the cave has required lots of oxygen and special diving skills, which would also complicate rescue efforts once the boys are found, Passakorn said. He said divers might have to first bring in food and the boys might need to wait out the flood or learn the basics of scuba to get out.
The cave, cut into a mountainside near the border with Myanmar, can flood severely during the rainy season, which runs from June to October.
In “The Caves of Northern Thailand,” an online guidebook updated this year, the cave is described as explorable only from November to June due to flooding. It says the cave is an easy walk at first, but farther inside, finding a route through the rock formations and narrow passages can be difficult.
Associated Press journalists Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Jason Corben in Bangkok contributed to this report.