Cavers walk on a road leading to Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex, where an operation is under way to rescue boys trapped in a flooded cave, on July 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Cavers walk on a road leading to Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex, where an operation is under way to rescue boys trapped in a flooded cave, on July 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Mae Sai — The second phase of an operation to evacuate the remaining nine members of a Thai football team trapped deep in a flooded cave is under way, the chief of the rescue bid told reporters on Monday.

“At 11am sent [in] the second operation,” Narongsak Osottanakorn said, adding he hoped it would be “quicker” than Sunday’s operation, which brought out four of the team.

As the treacherous rescue bid entered its second day on Monday looming rain was one of the main enemies of the operation, threatening to flood the cave complex in mountainous northern Thailand. A bewildering array of other dangers could also doom the escape plans.

Thais have been fixated on the crisis, hoping desperately for the safe return of the boys and their 25-year-old coach, since they became trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex on June 23 because of rising waters.

They spent nine days unaccounted for inside the cave, before British divers found the emaciated and dishevelled group huddling on a muddy bank above the flooding.

On Sunday four members of the Wild Boar team were successfully brought out from the cave, after authorities decided they had to rush ahead with a rescue operation to beat monsoon rains.

They were guided by expert divers who plotted the hours-long escape through more than 4km of twisting passageways and flooded chambers.

Narongsak on Sunday said four of the team — affectionately dubbed by Thai social media Wild Boars 1, 2, 3, 4 — were “safe” but released few details about their condition or identities.

The four members would not be allowed physical contact with their parents until the risk of infection had gone, the chief of the rescue bid said Monday. “They [the four] will be kept away from their parents for a while because we are concerned about infections,” Narongsak told reporters. He said doctors would decide on family visits “at a distance or through glass”.

“We’ve been working continuously overnight,” a Chiang Rai government source said on Monday morning, requesting anonymity, and confirming that there had only been a pause of the actual extraction operations.

Authorities continued to refuse to release details about the identities or conditions of the four who had escaped.

“Don’t ask these kinds of questions. Not wise questions to ask,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters in Bangkok on Monday morning when asked about the conditions of the four.

Prayut was scheduled to visit the cave site later on Monday, according to his official schedule.

With so few details released, parents continued their agonising wait to be reunited with their sons. “I am still waiting here at the cave, keeping my fingers crossed to see whether my son will be one of those to come out today,” Supaluk Sompiengjai, a mother of Pheeraphat — known by his nickname Night — said.

“We heard four boys are out but we do not know who they are. Many parents are still here waiting. None of us has been informed of anything.”

But she added she was “happy” at the prospect of seeing her son again.

To get the remaining boys out, divers will be forced by the narrow passages to accompany them one at a time.

None of the boys have scuba diving experience and experts have warned they could easily panic while swimming underwater in darkness.

The lack of space has added complexity to storing enough canisters of oxygen along the route out.

The death of a former Thai Navy Seal diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscored the danger of the journey even for professionals. Weather forecasters said heavy rain could hit the area on Monday afternoon and continue through the week. Authorities have repeatedly warned that the rain could re-flood crucial parts of the cave complex that have been drained and make the escape route much harder or even impossible to navigate.

The hordes of global and local media have been kept back from the cave and the hospital in Chiang Rai, where the rescued boys are believed to be under observation.

Night’s relatives have said they believe the group went to the cave to celebrate his 16th birthday after a Saturday football practice and got caught as heavy rains caused the water inside the cave to suddenly rise.

A frantic rescue mission was hatched in the week since they were found.

Expert climbers, divers and Thai Navy Seals have mulled contingencies ranging from drilling an escape route through the mountain to waiting out the monsoon inside the cave. But the rescue was prodded into action by the threat of a fresh round of rains and falling oxygen levels in the cave.