CHIANG RAI: A team from the navy's Underwater Demolition Assault Unit on Monday began searching a flooded cave in Mae Sai district for 12 student footballers and their coach who have been missing since Saturday afternoon.
The 17-strong special operations team entered Tham Luang cave in the Tham Luang Khun Nam Nang Nong forest reserve forest early on Monday morning.
Capt Anant Surawan, the head of unconventional warfare, said there was a waterway in the cave that was narrow and had natural blockages. Other difficulties for the searchers included murky flood water and the strong current.
The team went down to a depth of 5 metres and found a large chamber ... but we've found no trace of the children," the navy unit said on its Facebook page.
A navy commander overseeing the search said he was hopeful the 12 twelve boys, aged 13-16, and their 25-year-old coach would be rescued.
"I believe they're all still alive but they might be exhausted ... we should get good news today," Rear Admiral Arparkorn Yookongkaew told Reuters.
Rain continued to fall in the area Monday afternoon and officials said parts of the cave were flooded under at least 5 metres of water.
"Right now, our family is hoping that the children trapped inside will have formed a group and are safe and waiting for officials to go in and save them in time. That's what I'm hoping,'' Noppadol Kantawong, the father of one of the missing boys, told Thai PBS on Sunday.
Sompote Maneerat, spokesman of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said on Monday the Tham Luang cave had one main entrance, which was 500 metres from a tourist service centre.
He said entry to the cave had earlier been closed to the public for the wet season.
Normally park rangers would give advice to visitors and lead them into the cave. But during the rainy season visitors were prohibiting from entering it for their own safety due to the danger of flooding, he said.
Eleven boys have their photo taken before they entered the cave in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district on Saturday and disappeared. (Photo from Facebook Page: Love Mae Sai)
The 12 missing footballers are aged 13-16 years and come from several local schools. Officials believed they and their 25-year-old coach may have been cut off by rising flood water in a curved section of the cave about three kilometres from the main entrance.
The players usually practice at the football field in Ban Pong Pha every weekend. On Saturday, after training, witnesses saw the coach and the football players enter the cave. A mother reported that her son did not return from soccer practice, setting off the search.
About 7pm, national park officials found a motorcycle and 11 bicycles left in front of the cave, with backpacks, football shoes and other sports equipment left in their baskets. The officials contacted the leader of the local football team in tambon Pong Pha, who confirmed that they belonged to 11 football players and the coach.
The park officials went about 3 kilometres into the cave to look for them, but had to abandon the search when heavy rain threatened to make the creek overflow and block their exit.
They believed the football players and the coach were still in the cave.Rescuers will have to dive deep and clear natural blockages if they are to succeed in their mission.
Park officials and volunteers search for 11 football players and their coach believed trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai district, Chiang Rai, on Saturday. (Photo by Chinnapat Chaimol)