UPDATE ― July 9: Thai officials said Monday that the mission to rescue the boys still trapped in Tham Luang Cave had resumed at 11 a.m. local time.
Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command center coordinating the rescue, said recent rains had not affected water levels in the cave and conditions were expected to be “as good as they were on Sunday,” The Guardian reported.
Four young soccer players have been rescued from the Tham Luang Cave in Thailand after weeks of uncertainty, ominous weather conditions and a concerted effort from divers and rescuers from all over the world working to save the trapped soccer team.
The first two boys were freed from the cave before 6 p.m. local time on Sunday, Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former Chiang Rai governor who has been heading rescue efforts, said at a press conference. Two additional boys were later rescued.
All four were promptly whisked to the hospital, said Osatanakorn, The Guardian reported. Several ambulances and a helicopter were seen leaving the cave site on Sunday evening. Locals reportedly cheered and whooped as the helicopter flew by.
Osatanakorn said the boys’ health was “perfect” and said the operation had been “more successful than I expected.”
“Everyone’s happy,” he said.
Nine people remain trapped inside the cave ― 8 boys and their 25-year-old coach. Osatanakorn said the rescue mission had been put on hold for the time being because “we’ve used all the oxygen” and supplies needed to be replenished.
The mission to rescue the 12 young boys and their coach from the cave, located in the Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, began on Sunday at 10 a.m. local time.
Eighteen rescuers, including 13 foreign divers and five Thai Navy SEALs, entered the cave with plans to remove the stranded boys one by one, Osatanakorn said during an earlier press conference.
Officials had originally said the earliest a boy could be rescued would be 9 p.m. Sunday, but the first two boys emerged from the cave about three hours ahead of schedule.
“We can say they are all international all-stars involved in this diving operation and we selected five of our best who can work with them,” the rescue chief said, according to The Guardian.
Officials have been preparing for this rescue attempt all week. On Saturday, the “water levels were the lowest they had been,” Osatanakorn said, adding that most of the cave system was walkable.
Osatanakorn revealed Sunday night that the four freed boys nonetheless had to dive more than half a mile to get to safety. The boys wore full-faced masks “while hanging on to the bodies of rescue divers,” reported Channel News Asia.
An infographic released earlier by the Thai government revealed how rescue divers expected to get the children to safety.
The Wild Boars junior soccer team, consisting of 12 boys between the ages of 11 and 16, along with their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, went missing on June 23 after hiking into the Tham Luang complex cave system. Heavy rains flooded parts of the cave system during their trek, trapping them in a small chamber 2.5 miles inside.
The group had already spent nine days in the dark chamber when two British volunteer rescue divers found them on July 2.
Since then, the Thai Navy, along with engineers, rescuers and expert divers from all over the world, have been delivering food, water, medicine and oxygen tanks to the trapped boys and their coach. Divers have also been teaching the boys ― some of whom don’t know how to swim ― breathing and diving techniques to prepare them for an escape.
Rescue workers have widened some of the narrow passages in the cave complex for easier access, and have been working around the clock to pump water out of the flooded cave system. On Sunday, officials said they had successfully cleared a one-mile section between the cave entrance and Chamber Three so people can walk along it.
Though officials were buoyed by the success of the first rescue effort, the extraction of the rest of the team is still expected to involve extreme danger for the trapped children and the divers attempting to rescue them. The return of the monsoon season and unpredictable flash floods could still flood the cave system. Some passages within the cave are reportedly so narrow that only one body can barely squeeze through them; some are pitch black with muddied water.
It took experienced divers around six hours to reach the trapped boys’ chamber from a command center set up a mile into the cave, according to Time associate editor Feliz Solomon, who is reporting from the scene.
Rescue efforts have already claimed one fatality: A former Thai navy SEAL, Samarn Poonan, died Thursday night after falling unconscious while placing oxygen tanks deep inside the cave. Samarn’s death underscored how dangerous conditions are inside Tham Luang, even for highly trained professionals.
Thai officials on Sunday continued to explore other rescue options even as divers were entering the cave to rescue the boys and their coach.
Rescuers have dug more than 100 holes into the mountain in hopes of finding alternative routes into the chamber where the boys are, according to the BBC. Men with climbing gear were seen near the cave entrance on Sunday.
Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has also been working with Thai officials to come up with alternative rescue options. Engineers from Musk’s companies SpaceX, Tesla and the Boring Company have flown to Thailand to assist with the rescue effort.
In the hours before divers entered the cave to commence the extraction attempt, Musk said on Twitter that a team from his rocket company SpaceX was building a “tiny, kid-size submarine” that could potentially help with the rescue. He later praised the “extremely talented dive team” sent in to rescue the boys, wishing them “godspeed.”
Musk had suggested in an earlier tweet that an inflatable nylon tube could be used as an underwater “air tunnel” to rescue the boys. That idea was being tested near the cave on Sunday, according to BBC reporter Jonathan Head.
Officials on Sunday abruptly evacuated media outlets and nonessential personnel nearly two miles from a base set up near the cave, saying the space was needed for a rescue operation, CNN reported.
Dive teams, medics and security officials stayed, and the rescue began hours later, according to reporters on the scene.
“If they are going for a rescue attempt today, it’s because they feel the water level has dropped sufficiently or that they simply need to act. It’s too dangerous for the children to be in there any longer,” Nick Beake, a Myanmar-based BBC World reporter, said in a video filmed Sunday morning at the rescue site.
In letters to their families last week, the boys urged their loved ones not to worry about them and expressed hope that they’d soon be able to eat their favorite foods. The boys also implored their teachers not to “give us a lot of homework.”
“Dad, mom don’t worry about me,” wrote 11-year-old Chanin Viboonrungruang to his parents, according to CNN. “I am fine. Please tell Pee Yod [a female relative] to take me to eat fried chicken. Love you all.”
This story has been updated with details of the rescue effort.