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Thai cave teens have been found, but rescuing them won't be easy

"The water level in cave is still very high, so we have to teach them how to swim," the province's governor said.
Image: Rescuers head inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave
Rescuers head inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave on Tuesday in Chiang Rai, Thailand.Linh Pham / Getty Images

Rescuers may have found the 12 schoolboys and their soccer coach who had been trapped in a Thai cave complex for nine days, but the team's ordeal is far from over.

The group could be stuck in the cave "up to three or four months," Ben Reymenants, a locally based diving instructor who is assisting with the effort, told NBC News on Tuesday. Two Thai Navy doctors have volunteered to be "locked up" in the cave with the team, he added.

Two other complications: Heavy rains forecast for northern Thailand could exacerbate flooding in the cave, and the boys do not know how to swim.

“The water level in the cave is still very high, so we have to teach them how to swim to come out from there,” the provincial governor, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told reporters. “We will give them diver masks, but only the rescue teams can decide whether they can be brought out safely in this way."

The handful of rescuers who joined the group in the cave brought food and energy supplements, salt water solution, anti-inflammatory drugs and basic painkillers, he added.

"They are very weak and very skinny, and almost unable to walk," Reymenants said, "so that’s what they are working on now — to give them strength and get them back on their legs."

The schoolboys, ages 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach set out on June 23 after a soccer game. What was supposed to be a trip to the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Chiang Rai, a popular tourist attraction in the region, turned into an ordeal that has transfixed the country after rising waters trapped the group.

Rescue efforts were launched after parents reported the boys missing,but heavy rains hampered the work with muddy water filling the cave chambers and stopping the divers trying to find the group.

A six-mile labyrinth of caves and narrow passages runs under the mountainside, and the group is stuck in the middle, making access to the boys and coach difficult, Reymenants said.

Given the complexity of the operation, the Thai-led multinational team of rescuers is currently assessing the safest way of extracting the group.

"They are looking at all the possible options because it's paramount that this is being done safely," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Jessica Tait, one of around 30 Air Force members who arrived last Thursday from their base in Okinawa, Japan, to assist the Thai government with the rescue.

With the cave complex still flooded, and thunderstorms expected to drench the region over the next week, reaching the boys is arduous and time consuming.

"From the operations center in the third chamber to where they were found, it takes about three hours to get there and three hours to come back," Thai Navy chief, Adm. Naris Pratoomsuwan, told reporters.

Although water pumps have been sucking water out of the caves, rescuers would prefer the group walk out rather than swim and dive through the flooded tunnels, a Thai Navy spokesman told NBC News.

So much water has already been pumped out from the caves that it has flooded farms nearby, The Bangkok Post reported.

Two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, were first to reach the boys on Monday evening, according to Bill Whitehouse, the vice chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council.

“Thank you,” the boys cried out when they first saw the rescuers.

“How many of you?” one of the rescuers asks. “13?”

“Yes, 13,” one of them says.

“Brilliant,” the rescuer replies.

“I am very happy,” said one of the boys to the rescuers.

Relatives of the boys along with the coach of their soccer league have stayed in tents outside the caves through the rainy weather, waiting for updates from rescuers.

"I want to give him a hug. I miss him very much. In these 10 days, how many million seconds does it have, I do miss him every second," Tham Chanthawong, the aunt of the trapped coach, said Tuesday.

A team of Thai divers inspects a water-filled tunnel.Royal Thai Navy SEAL / AFP - Getty Images

When the families got word that the group had been found, there were scenes of jubilation among the families and rescuers alike.

“It was like a party,” Tait told NBC News.

In addition to the U.S. Air Force members, British cave experts, Chinese first responders and volunteer workers from countries around the world are also on the ground assisting with the effort.

"I would like to say thank you to all the foreigners who have come to help," Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"The work would not be successful if we didn't get help from everyone lending a hand in whatever way they can."

Associated Press, Reuters and Michele Neubert contributed.