CHIANG RAI — Officers stand vigil to keep roads clear. Soldiers march through with fresh supplies. Water pumps work relentlessly while the local authority monitors electric cables. All are poised for a single purpose: bringing the 13 souls so close yet still out of reach back to a world perched on hope.
As people here and abroad welcomed the news that a desperate search had pivoted into rescue operation for 12 boys and their coach lost deep within a flooded cave, those working the muddy scene Tuesday were on standby, ready to take action whenever the moment came.
Gathering storms weighed on their minds and with them a sense that whatever was to be done may need to happen very soon.
A fortnight after the search began inside the cave in northern Thailand – and a day after all the missing were found alive deep inside – the question was no longer if, but when the moment would arrive to bring them out.
The mission has seen support pour in from all over the world, including 30 troops from the US Air Force which have been advising and assisting Thai authorities with skill sets including survival and field medicine.
“We’re following the developments very closely,” spokeswoman Capt. Jessica Tait said from the scene. “Assistance has been provided to them. They’re getting necessary supplies to start to get strong for the next phase, and the next phase is how to extract them safely.”
“I’m here with the US Air Force, and we’re just very happy to be able to support however we are able to for the plan that’s executed,” she continued.
Police officers were standing watch throughout the area to make sure the steep and narrow roadways were clear and ready for use. One waived away a foreign reporter setting up a camera too close to the spot leading up to the cave as groups of rescue workers and soldiers constantly walked through with large sacks containing what looked like food supplies.
Meanwhile, vehicles belonging to those not involved in the operation are now barred to parking anywhere on the hill where hundreds of officials, volunteers and international media have converged for the uncertain endgame.
Efforts are also intense for the legion of volunteers who have gathered to support the rescue personnel and officials at their own expense.
Nalinee Sutthasan, a 20-year-old mother of two, set up her pork noodle cart where rescuers rest and recuperate on June 24, the day after the Wild Boars football team vanished. She hasn’t stopped since.
A long line of customers at her cart is a common sight, and Nalinee said she prepares up to 15,000 baht worth of food daily that she gives away for free, all paid for by her local Mae Sai community. All the food is finished every day.
“It’s very tiring, but I’m still in good spirits,” she said. “I intend to stay here until everyone is brought out.”
The main topic now is when exactly when the boys and coach can safely be extracted from the cave as the imminent arrival of more monsoon storms could worsen the situation. Heavy rains started to pour just before 11:30pm.
The provincial governor in charge of the rescue said that it could take days or weeks as their health needs to recover first, but rumors were spreading among reporters that the mission could begin as soon as late tonight or in the early morning.
A group of soldiers standing near restrooms could be heard saying it “could be late tonight.”
Chief Rear Adm. Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew of the Thai Navy SEAL unit said during an evening press conference that all 13 are in good condition, and they’re looking into several possibilities to evacuate them from the cave.
He said the main plan is to continue to pump water out until levels fall, but if that doesn’t happen, the boys will be trained in scuba diving until it’s ensured they will be able to do it safely under care of the diving team.