Four boys from a group of 12 children trapped in a cave in northern Thailand have been freed in a dramatic eight-hour operation to be repeated on Monday.
The first two boys emerged from the cave wearing full-face scuba masks just after 5.30pm local time (11.30 BST) on Sunday, and were embraced by the divers who led them out, said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command centre coordinating the operation.
Two hours later, another two boys were brought out about 10 minutes apart – hours ahead of even the most optimistic predictions authorities had given earlier that day.
“Today was the best situation, in terms of the kids’ health, water and our rescue readiness,” Osatanakorn told a press briefing on Sunday night outside a government office a few kilometres from the cave in Mae Sai. “It has been our masterpiece work.”
The first boy emerged from the cave at 5.40pm, followed by a second 10 to 12 minutes later, he said: “After that, a third and fourth at 7.40pm and 7.50pm.”
The four received preliminary health checks at the scene and were taken to a hospital in Chiang Rai, the nearest major city, he said. One was airlifted and three arrived by ambulance.
Osatanakorn did not name the boys who were rescued first, or reveal the basis on which they were selected. Parents waiting at the cave site did not know which boys had undertaken the dangerous two-mile journey out.
Namhom Boonpiam, the mother of Mongkhol, 14, said she was tracking unconfirmed reports on social media that her son was the first boy freed. “I just heard his name, Mongkhol, and I was happy enough,” she said.
She is sleeping at the cave site along with many other parents awaiting the next stage of the rescue operation, scheduled to begin some time after 7am on Monday.
Osatanakorn was applauded at a press conference on Sunday after announcing the four boys had been brought out, but he said: “Our job is not completely done.
“We will have to do the next mission as successfully as the one we did today. The rest of the kids are in the same spot.”
He said rescuers needed between 10 and 20 hours to rest and prepare their equipment. “Air tanks and systems have to be put in place again,” Osatanakorn said.
“I can’t tell you exact timing of the next operation. I have to check all factors are stable. The operation then will be carried out.”
Osatanakorn had earlier referred to Sunday as “D-Day” for the 16-day rescue operation. Heavy monsoon rain overnight and the sudden exclusion of journalists from the cave site in the morning had led to rumours that almost a week since divers found the boys, they were launching the operation to retrieve them.
He said water levels inside the cave had dropped by 30cm on Saturday, allowing the boys to walk about half the jagged, muddy path from the slope where they have been sheltering with their 25-year-old coach for 15 nights.
“We have reached peak readiness,” Osatanakorn said. “The meaning of readiness is … perfect weather, water and the kids’ readiness, physical and mental.”
An elite group of 10 international cave divers, working with five Thai navy Seals, entered the cave at about 10am, with some heading for the boys’ chamber and others stationed a few hundred metres away at an area called Monk’s Junction.
A second group of three foreign divers entered at about 2pm “to support diving efforts”, according to a statement issued by the command centre, with additional rescuers in place helping operate a rope system in a difficult middle stretch of the track.
Richard Harris, an Australian doctor with extensive cave-diving experience, went into the chamber on Saturday, examined the boys and approved them for the operation, authorities said. He was also part of the rescue.
Authorities had spent the week in a race against time, trying to drain as much water from the cave as possible to give the children the easiest possible path to the exit before the arrival of monsoon rains at the weekend.
On Sunday morning, Osatanakorn said the one-mile path from the cave entrance to the third chamber that has been a staging ground for the operation was not completely dry but mostly walkable. “Yesterday the water levels were the lowest they had been,” he said.
“Although there are some slightly difficult parts [where] we have to bend or crawl, we can say that we can just walk through it.”
He declined to say whether the boys would need to dive at all in the 1.1-mile journey from where they are sheltering to the third chamber. “What I can tell you is that there are many parts that they can walk,” he said.
Divers had said the return journey to the boys had been taking about 11 hours during the week – six to reach them and five to return.
“It’s dangerous to the most experienced divers to go through,” one told Reuters. “It’s pretty scary.”
A 25-year-old Thai navy Seal, who declined to be named, described one of the most difficult parts of the journey. “The hole is really small, I have to take off my air tank to crawl through it. As I do, I feel the edges of the hole on both my back and chest,” he said.
Authorities had predicted no boy would emerge before 9pm at the earliest, but about three hours earlier, journalists posted outside the cave site began reporting the movements of ambulances and aircraft.
Soon after, divers and Thai navy officials at the site began confirming two boys had been released – and then, hours later, potentially more. At 9pm, Osatanakorn called a second press conference and confirmed four boys had been freed.
“The operation was more successful than we expected,” Osatanakorn said.
The former governor of Chiang Rai province has emerged as the public face of the rescue operation, which has captivated and unified Thais for more than a fortnight.
Osatanakorn had officially been transferred to a governorship in the smaller, neighbouring province of Phayao since the boys became stuck in the cave on 23 June.
But his training as an engineer and his management skills earned him a continuing role as head of the command centre. His leadership has won him national popularity, including calls on social media that he become prime minister.
Thailand’s navy Seals have also been in the spotlight, posting a picture on their official Facebook page after the start of the operation of three men gripping each others’ wrists. “We, the Thai team and the international team, will bring the Wild Boars home,” they wrote, in reference to the boys’ football team.
The Seals posted another message to their official Facebook page after the operation, which said: “Have a good dream tonight. Night. Hooyah.”