MAE SAI, Thailand — Rescuers were poised late Monday for the next day’s push in the painstaking, dangerous mission to free the young soccer players still trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand, 17 nights after their group went missing.
The mission to extract the 12 Thai boys and their coach accelerated Monday, with four more brought to safety in the second day of rescue efforts. The boys are being led out one at a time, each with two divers from an international team of 18, through winding, narrow passageways filled with murky water.
The rescue operation has to be paused between missions so the divers can replace compressed-air tanks and guide ropes. The first four boys were taken out of the cave Sunday, all of them whisked quickly away by ambulance and helicopter to the closest regional hospital.
“2 days, 8 wild boars,” said the Thai Navy SEAL team in a post on its official Facebook page, referring to the name of the soccer team.
Officials said that Monday’s undertaking, which took about nine hours and involved 100 other rescuers inside the cave in addition to the divers, went even more smoothly than the previous day’s.
“We’re more confident today. We worked faster. I’m so happy,” said mission chief Narongsak Osatanakorn. The second group of boys rescued, he said, were healthier than the first.
Narongsak said that the plan is “designed for rescuing four at a time.” He said he was not sure whether preparations could be adjusted to bring out the last five in quick succession Tuesday — raising the possibility that one would be left there by himself, enduring a grueling wait while rescue efforts restart.
The 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach disappeared after they went into the cave complex on June 23 and were trapped by rising waters. They were found more than a week later, stuck on a small, muddy patch deep in the cave’s network of chambers. The world has been rooting for them since, especially after warnings from experts about how much could go wrong in the process of bringing out the young boys, who cannot swim and were weakened by their long ordeal.
“Heartened to see 4 more boys rescued from the Thai cave earlier today,” Vice President Pence said in a tweet Monday. “Praying for the 4 players & coach still in the cave. God bless them and the brave rescuers.”
To get the boys through the miles of submerged passages, they were each tethered to a diver, with another positioned behind him. Each one was fitted with a face mask connected to a compressed-air tank. At especially narrow parts of the cave, the tanks had to be released from their backs and rolled through.
Officials said without elaborating that the boys are healthy. They are being kept in isolation for now to ensure they contracted no infections in the cave, but Narongsak said a team of doctors will determine whether their parents can see them soon, probably through a glass partition.
After their first night in the hospital, the boys rescued Sunday requested spicy basil pork, according to officials. For now, though, they are being given only meals like diluted porridge.
The rescue team has also declined to provide the names of the boys who have been freed. Friends of 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiem, however, said he was among those who were extracted Sunday. He was reported to be among the weakest in the group.
Thailand’s prime minister and leader of the military junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha, visited rescuers and the boys’ family members Monday at the muddy site where they have been camped since the team first went missing. He also stopped by the hospital, where an entire floor has been reserved for the eight rescued boys and their teammates.
Around Chiang Rai airport, the closest regional airport to the site of the cave, workers were seen lining the roads with flags representing the Thai king. Both the prime minister and the king conferred with rescue officials Monday.
For the first time in weeks, life was slowly starting to resume for those closest to the team, as crippling anxiety gave way to relief. The head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars), Nopparat Khanthavong, said he felt hungry Sunday for the first time since the disappearance of his assistant coach and the boys.
“Before, I was just eating to eat,” he said.
Away from the chaos of the press center, a few dozen fans gathered at a small soccer field behind a hotel to watch the older members of the Moo Pa soccer academy play their first game in two weeks.
“We are playing today because we want to send encouragement to those who are still stuck inside,” Nopparat said. As the players, dressed in black jerseys, dribbled and passed the ball, news broke that the eighth boy had been freed from the cave. The team won 5-1.
Across the country and the world, millions have been glued to their television screens, watching every twist and turn of the dramatic search. But nowhere more than in Mae Sai, home of the Moo Pa boys. Their disappearance, the international search mission that followed and the media frenzy has sent a shock wave through the quiet border town.
Nuttachoong Pimtong, a 14-year-old friend of Adul Sam-on, one of the 12 trapped boys, said he was watching a Thai television network Monday with his family when he saw the first footage of boys leaving the cave site in ambulances.
“We all clapped and cheered,” he said. Another classmate, Monthip Yodkham, showed on his phone messages exchanged in an app group chat among his friends, a group that includes members of the soccer team.
“I want to give him a hug!” one message said. “I want to see him now. Can we go to the hospital right away?” another added. One message was just a string of thumbs up and smiley face emoji.
At the Mae Sai Prasitsart school, where six of the 12 boys studied, the principal and teachers were preparing for the boys’ return. They promised to give the boys a lighter homework load once they are back in class, and will exempt them from upcoming tests.
The school’s principal, Kanetpong Suwan, said teachers and students have been told to treat the boys normally and positively, not to ask them about details that would remind them of their ordeal and to welcome all of them back with open arms.
“It isn’t anyone’s fault,” he said. “We should treat them like disaster victims, and not like they’ve done anything wrong.”
Still, their friends and classmates are brimming with questions, including a pressing one — why did they go so far in, so close to the monsoon season?
“I really want to know, why did he go inside?” Monthip said. “I thought it was so dangerous. I told them that.”
Panaporn Wutwanich contributed to this report.