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Heavy Rain Forecast Pressures Thailand Cave Rescue


For two weeks, 12 members of a boys' soccer team and their coach have been trapped in a cave in Thailand. The world has been watching anxiously while officials have been trying to work out the safest way to rescue them. Now time and the elements may be forcing the hands of the rescuers.

Reporter Michael Sullivan has been covering this story for us in Chiang Rai Province in Thailand, and he's with us now.

Michael, thanks so much for being here. Take us through the situation those kids are in right now and the conditions in the cave.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: So, Michel, the boys are in the same place where they were found by the British divers on Monday about two miles inside the complex. They've been in the cave for two weeks now. They went missing on June 23 after they entered the cave and were trapped by floodwaters that cut off their escape. They're in reasonably good condition. There are Navy SEALs and a doctor with them in the cave nursing them back to health.

Their spirits seem good. They got letters out to their families via one of the divers today and told their parents not to worry, that they were OK and were looking forward to coming home and getting some good cooking soon. And the coach apologized to the parents for creating that situation by bringing them into the cave in the first place.

MARTIN: But why is time so important now? And what have officials said about their options?

SULLIVAN: Over the past 24 hours, the tone of the officials has changed. It's gotten more urgent. Both the provisional governor - the provincial governor who is in charge and the head of the SEAL team are both saying that while they've made progress and pumped a lot of water out of the cave that they have this window now because the rain hasn't started again in earnest, though it's expected to close anytime. And they're worried that if that happens - if that window closes - the rain could flood became even more and could flood the forward staging area they've set up inside and could even reach the bit where the boys are as well.

So there's this increasing sense of urgency to get the boys out as fast as they can before the weather hits. And they're worried that the oxygen levels in the cave are dropping, too, which is another factor. And it's been drizzling a bit up here overnight but nothing serious yet.

MARTIN: So of course, the question we all have is if a rescue is to be staged, how might that work?

SULLIVAN: By all accounts, they're going to try to take the boys out through the cave itself, which is quite risky. There are parts of the cave that are very narrow and some lengthy portions that are still submerged - still filled with water - which means the boys are going to have to use masks and oxygen to get out.

And the way I understand it is that the boys are going to be taken out by two divers each - one in front and one in back will guide them along the rope lines that have been set up inside the cave and be there to pull or push the boys as needed to make sure they keep moving. But it's a long way, more than two miles by some estimates.

And while it seems like most of the boys do know how to swim, they're not divers. They've been getting some basic training in diving in the past few days. But officials are warning the cave - the strong currents and near blackout conditions inside - make this a very, very risky undertaking.

MARTIN: And we have a sense of how long this might all take once this starts?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's about an eight or nine-hour round trip for the divers who've been bringing food and medicine and oxygen to the boys, right? So that means - what? - about a four-, five-hour trip one way to get the kids out if everything goes smoothly.

So oxygen tanks have been placed along the way to help facilitate that process. But if you figure 13 people altogether, it could take the better part of a day if not longer. And they probably won't be brought out all together. They'll probably stagger them, so they don't create bottlenecks. And if - that's if the rain doesn't muck things up, which is why I think they're trying to start soon.

MARTIN: Well, we certainly will keep a good thought for everyone involved.

That's reporter Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. He was joining us via Skype.

Michael, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.