MAE SAI, Thailand – Rising waters prevented divers from moving deeper into a cave complex in northern Thailand flooded by heavy rains, forcing them to suspend their search Monday for 12 boys and their soccer coach who have been missing for two days, but officials said they believe they’re still alive.
The boys, aged 11-15, are believed to have entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai province with their 25-year-old coach 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 SEAL divers, to search farther in the cave, which is thought to be about 6-8 kilometres (4-5 miles) long and contain some large chambers. By Monday evening, officials made the call to temporarily pull out.
“We went in a few kilometres 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.
He said they would wait for water pumps to be brought in and that would hopefully help them access another passageway.
Bicycles, backpacks and soccer cleats the boys left behind remained at the entrance of the cave. The area was filled with soldiers and rescue personnel.
Mothers and other relatives of the missing boys held a prayer session Monday evening at the entrance to the cave, where there is a shrine with a statue of the Buddha. They laid flowers and then some walked inside, where their cries could be heard echoing off the walls.
WATCH: Search continues for boys soccer team missing in flooded cave in Thailand
“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?”
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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.”
Officials remained optimistic the boys would be found safe.
Chote Narin, an officer at Mae Sai district police station, said Monday afternoon that footprints and handprints were found inside the cave complex. He said the fact that the boys are athletes should help them endure the situation.
Despite heavy rain and rising waters, officials are hopeful that there are still safe spaces in the cave complex, Chiang Rai Deputy Governor Passakorn Bunyalak told a news conference Thursday afternoon.
“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 deeper 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 food in and the boys might need to wait out the flood or learn the basics of scuba to get out.
Officials said parts of the cave were flooded under at least 5 metres (16 feet) of water.
The cave, cut into a mountainside in far northern Thailand near the border with Myanmar, is a local tourist attraction but can flood severely during the rainy season, which runs from June to October.
Kamolchai Kotcha, an official at the forest park where the cave is located, said Monday morning that attempts to reach a large chamber about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from the entrance of the cave had failed as the passage is extremely small, “flooded and covered with sand and mud.”
According to Kamolchai, tourists trapped in the cave by past floods have been rescued after the water receded a few days later.
In “The Caves of Northern Thailand,” an online guidebook last updated this year, the cave is described as explorable only from November to June due to flooding. It says the cave has an “impressive entrance chamber” that is about 80 metres (260 feet) long and leads to an easy walk along “spacious passageways” that last for about a kilometre (half a mile).
“At the end of the marked path the passage enters a series of chambers, boulder collapses and boulder chokes where route finding can be difficult,” it says.
After a few hundred meters (yards), the cave narrows to a passage 2 metres (6.5 feet) wide and 3 metres (10 feet) high, it says. After that area, the cave splits off into different directions, including several that lead to other chambers, pools of water or places with high “avens,” shafts that reach the surface.
Chote, of the Mae Sai police, said a helicopter was sent Monday afternoon to survey at least one of those shafts.
Anukoon Sorn-ek, a geographer and expert on the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, said divers have made it about 3 kilometres (1.8 miles) into the complex. He said the cave maintains a relatively stable temperature of about 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).
He said the only way to get the boys out would be for them to dive.
“But they have to be found first,” he said.