Israeli rescuers have been part of an international effort to reach 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped for more than a week in a flooded cave in Thailand, and have told Israeli media that some divers involved in the operation are now feared dead.
Thai navy divers leading the search have failed to make much headway in their effort to push through the murk of a kilometer- (half-mile-) long chamber to what is believed to be a clear area leading to where the missing may be sheltering, officials said.
Sunday’s fresh reckoning came a day after a break in the constant rainfall had lowered water levels, bringing hope that the muddy water inside the crucial but clogged chamber would recede and expedite divers’ movement forward.
One of the Israelis currently at the cave is Yuval Zalmanov, an employee for Maxtech Networks, an Israeli company that manufactures emergency communications devices, who flew out last Monday, the Walla news site reported Saturday.
“The water is rising and reaching insane heights,” Zalmanov was quoted as saying. “They don’t know when a wave will come or from what direction. They tried to cross to the place where the kids are, and failed. Twenty divers tried and not all returned.”
The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach entered the sprawling Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai after a soccer game on June 23. There is hope they can survive if they have found a dry spot in which to shelter.
“There is a flooded passageway that needs to be crossed, people are really battling the weather to advance,” said Uzi Hanuni, CEO of Maxtech. “About 10-20 divers tried to pass and couldn’t, because there is heavy rain and there are strong currents and waves inside the cave. There is fear for the lives of some of the divers whose condition isn’t known.”
Another Israeli involved in the operation is Asaf Zmirly, who lives in Thailand and owns a rescue company, the report said. He contacted Hanuni on Monday.
“Without much hesitation, I took the crew, said there was an incident and that someone needs to go to Thailand,” Hanuni said. “I got the license to take the communications devices out of Israel, and one of the employees volunteered to fly with them that same day. On the next day he arrived at the scene, sat down with Asaf and they began the rescue.”
Experts in cave rescues from around the world continued to gather at the site. Apart from the Israeli officials, an official Australian group has now followed a US military team, British cave experts, Chinese lifesaving responders and several other volunteer groups from various countries.
An announcement on the Facebook page of the Thai navy SEAL unit shortly before midnight on Saturday said they had penetrated only about 200 meters (yards) — one fifth of the way forward in the crucial chamber, about as far as they had made it much earlier in the search before being forced to retreat by rising waters.
An army commander, Maj. Gen. Bancha Duriyapat, said Sunday that authorities remain hopeful.
“Overall, it’s good. It is good news that rain has stopped. We continue to work in all areas, including pumping the water out from water sources all around the mountain so that we can help those who work inside the cave,” he said.
Chaiwat Dusadeepanich of the Department of Groundwater Resources explained Saturday that his team, which had been drilling for two days, found a small underground water source near the cave. He said they would keep drilling deeper in order to find a way to release the water at a high rate.
The search has been going slowly, largely because flooding has blocked rescuers from going through chambers to get deeper into the cave. Pumping out water hasn’t solved the problem, so the attention has focused on finding shafts on the mountainside that might serve as a back door to the blocked-off areas where the missing may be sheltering.
Teams have been combing the mountainside looking for fissures that might lead to such shafts. Several have been found and explorers have been able to descend into some, but so far it is not clear whether they lead to anywhere useful.
Hanuni stressed that his Israeli company wasn’t being paid for its involvement in the rescue. “We haven’t taken a single shekel for this. It is to save children,” he said, adding that Israeli airline El Al had agreed to fund Zalmanov’s flight ticket.
“I hope this has a happy ending,” he concluded.