The boars must have passed several signs warning them not to move further to Tham Luang. But the sky had been clear just a few hours earlier on June 23, when the team of young footballers entered the complex with a co-trainer and disappeared with just one day of food and some flashlights. By the time park authorities noticed the bicycles left after hours from the mouth of the cave, the entrance was already locked.
Authorities in Thailand's northern Chiang Rai province say they hope the 12 boys between the ages of 11 and 16 and their 25-year-old chaperones can still be found alive. Her anxious parents awoke Saturday on plastic chairs for the seventh consecutive day. Divers prepared themselves in a nearby tent and waded back into a muddy black canyon. On top of the hill, the police went on a determined search for undiscovered chimneys through the tropical bush, as steep entrances in caves are called.
What began as a small team of local helpers looking for lost boys grew mid-week A multinational race against time, in which hundreds of soldiers, civilians and foreign experts try, from every angle, into the great inner chamber of the cave penetrate. Rescuers believe the group, when they were inside, went 1
But the afternoon brought so much rain that the corridor filled to the top. The following days brought no relief, as it rained again and again.
"We were unlucky," says Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn in a muddy camp where Thai soldiers have pitched their makeshift headquarters. Twenty submersible pumps were turned on to dredge the route, but fresh monsoon rains flooded him as fast. "We have never had such a problem," says Narongsak, "there is too much mud, too much water."
On Wednesday, the Thai authorities asked for help. Three British expert divers hurried to the scene, followed by an Australian defense attaché. The US Pacific Command sent parrots and a survival specialist to "support the tremendous efforts of the Thai authorities," says PACOM spokeswoman Maj. Cassandra Gesecki.
"We will stay until we find them," says Captain Wuttichai, the team of Thai Navy SEALS who have been trying to reach them since Sunday. "They are healthy, they are young," he tells TIME, convinced of the survival of the group, "and besides, they are athletes."
Divers change blindly through the flooded corridor until they reach a dead end, where they feel in the dark for the 0.5 meter wide opening, which could lead them into a chamber where they hope the missing on one dry shelf huddled to find. They pat the walls until they have almost no oxygen left, then they turn around, rest and try again. "The conditions are very bad," says Ben Reymenants, a Belgian diver supporting the Thai SEALS. "Once inside, you can not see anything at all." But if the coach is clever, he says, it's possible it could survive two weeks without contact. Divers continue to dive
Read more: Thai divers continue searching for 12 boys and their coach in a flooded cave
Soldiers and police comb the northern side of the mountain peak for columns, which are wide enough to drop from above. Only one of the four who found them has enough space for a mountaineer. Lacking time and opportunities, the authorities decided to drill a hole in the slope on Thursday with an industrial drill supplied by the country's energy company. But the equipment is so heavy, and the roof is so thin that Narongsak says it runs the risk of collapsing without geological scans that could take days. On Friday, the authorities sent about 20 boxes of emergency equipment over the slides and floated through the canals hoping they would be reached. In each box were a card and a pencil with handwritten instructions to mark their position and float in the direction of the outside world.
Little is known about the missing boys and Ekkapol Chantawong, the coach who disappeared with them. Relatives wait under a banner for good news and advise the hundreds of journalists who stalk the site so as not to talk to them. Social workers say most of them have not left the site since the search began. At first they were heartbroken, but they start to find some peace. The country's prime minister, Prayuth Chan Ocha, visited Friday morning and urged her to "take a deep breath, stay calm and have faith". They pray and sit in the morning through most of the day; Buddhist and animist shrines in the area are overflowing with offerings. One man kneels in front of flower mounds, banana hands, soda bottles and fresh pineapple. Another day someone dropped a single white rabbit and chewed on a cabbage leaf in a cage.
"I believe that the children are still alive," says Saikhoe Sai Song, a spiritual leader of the Hmong hill tribe in the Thai highlands. Dressed in a clean, white dress, he seems indifferent to the hundreds of uniformed men and women sloshing through mud to execute orders-even to the mud itself. Nearly seventy years old, he comes here daily and does something he can to save the boys. He says he is one of a handful of people who know the ritual that can convince the mountain spirit to let them go.
About a thousand people are involved in the tremendous effort to reach the missing team, either witnessing a miracle or terrible tragedy. For Narongsak, the governor, all efforts are welcome.
"We're starting to see progress," he says. "We work around the clock, and we still have hope."