MAE SAI, Thailand — A rescue mission to remove a youth soccer team from a cave in northern Thailand is underway, Thai officials announced Sunday morning.
“Today is D-Day,” Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters. Thirteen foreign divers and five Thai divers began the operation at 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the governor said.
He said it’s expected to take 10-12 hours for the first boys to emerge and that the trapped boys and their families had been informed of the plan.
Each boy will be escorted by two divers, and will come out one at a time, officials said.
“We’re ready for the operation today,” said Narongsak, who said the weather and the water levels in the cave are good. “The boys are healthy, aware and ready to come out.”
An Australian doctor with cave diving experience examined the boys on Sunday and declared them fit for the operation, authorities said.
Water levels inside the cave dropped by around a foot on Saturday and are at their lowest levels since the team became trapped more than two weeks. Rescuers are able to walk deep into the cave, all the way to the “third chamber,” which is around one mile away from where the boys are located.
Officials wouldn’t say how much diving the boys would be required to do in the rescue operation.
It is also unclear how long the entire operation will take. Narongsak said that there was no time limit on the rescue and that its progress would depend on weather and conditions inside the cave, but expected it to last through Monday.
“If something changes, we’ll stop,” he said. “But I expect the operation to finish within the next couple of days.
Early on Sunday morning, all media and non-essential staff were cleared from the cave site area as divers, medics and military began moving into place.
Dark clouds and fog shrouded the area around the cave as a steady rain began falling in the early afternoon. Thunderstorms are forecast to start later on Sunday and are expected to continue through Monday as Thailand’s monsoon season gets underway.
The boys sounded calm and reassuring in handwritten notes to their families that were transported by divers and made public Saturday.
One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: “Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken. With love.”
The soccer team of 12 boys aged 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old coach have been stranded inside the massive Tham Luang cave complex in northern Chiang Rai province since June 23.
Residents of the nearby town of Mae Sai, located directly on the border with Myanmar around seven miles away from the cave entrance, have been following the saga of the boys’ disappearance and rescue efforts intently.
“We are talking about it all the time,” said Napattra Chokumpompan, 21, who works at a hotel in Mae Si.
“I watch the news on my phone, my mom is watching on TV,” said Chokumpompan, who graduated from the same school that six of the boys currently attend, Mae Si Prasitsart School.
“They are all of our students, all of our friends, all of our children,” she said.
Poonsak Sripiromrak, who runs a shop selling gems, jewelry and religious statues in Mae Si, said the story has kept everyone in town on edge for the more than two weeks since the boys first went missing.
“We are worried every day,” she said. “We hope they are coming out today.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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