CHIANG RAI, Thailand — Four members of the youth soccer team trapped for more than two weeks in a flooded cave in Thailand were freed Monday, bringing the total number of boys rescued to eight.
Six hours after operations restarted on Monday morning, a stretcher was carried from the mouth of the cave to a waiting ambulance, which then sped away with its lights flashing.
A Thai military official later confirmed that a boy had emerged around 5 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET).
Three more boys were carried out in the hours that followed, according to a post on the Thai navy SEALs Facebook page. That left four boys and the team's coach trapped inside the huge and waterlogged Tham Luang complex as the operation was called off for the day.
On Sunday, expert divers brought out the first four of the 13 stranded. The same divers were deployed Monday because they were familiar the cave, authorities said.
Rescue teams ended their efforts on Monday evening, and it could be another 20 hours before operations resume, officials said.
The four boys rescued Sunday were receiving medical treatment at a hospital in Chiang Rai, around 35 miles away. Its eighth floor has been reserved for the soccer team, their coach and their families — who have maintained a vigil by the cave's entrance while the boys have been underground.
Officials said the boys freed Sunday were hungry but in good health, and had asked for holy basil stir-fried rice, a popular Thai dish.
Somboon Sompiangjai, 38, the father of one of the trapped boys, said parents had been told by rescuers that the "strongest children" would be brought out first.
The 12 boys — ages 11 to 16 — entered the massive cave complex on the frontier of Thailand and Myanmar with their 25-year-old coach on June 23. The group became stranded after torrential monsoon rains caused the system to flood and were missing for nine days before being discovered by two British divers early last week.
Ivan Karadzic, a Danish diving instructor who lives in Thailand and who was involved in Sunday's rescue effort as a support diver, said that the operation "went surprisingly well, we were expecting bad things to happen, and they didn't."
He added, "The kids were all totally calm."
Those rescued Sunday traveled more than half a mile underwater, according to Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn, who is the head of the rescue mission.
He said that the decision to try to rescue the boys and their coach was made because conditions inside the cave were the best they could hope for. Narongsak said that water levels were low enough after days of good weather that it was possible to walk through long stretches of the passage.
According to the governor, 13 foreign divers and five Thai navy SEALs took part in the key leg of Sunday's rescue: taking the boys from where they have been sheltering and through dark, tight and twisting passageways filled with muddy water and strong currents.
“They are some incredibly strong kids considering they have been through what can only be thought to be an absolute nightmare.”
Two divers accompanied each of the boys, all of whom have been learning to dive only since July 2, when the first searchers found them.
"We are afraid of the rain," Narongsak said, referring to the annual monsoon that's bearing down on the mountainous region in far northern Chiang Rai Province.
Officials have been working around the clock to pump water out of the cave, and authorities said Monday that heavy downpours overnight did not raise water levels inside.
The journey from where the boys were trapped to the exit had taken as long as five hours when the water level was high and the current was strong, but that was down to around 2 ½ hours by Sunday, Karadzic said.
Speaking to NBC's "Today" on Monday, he said, "The main challenge is that we are dealing with young kids that are in no way trained to do cave diving."
Karadzic described the cave as “small, hard to navigate and pitch black unless you have artificial lights.”
He added, “They are some incredibly strong kids considering they have been through what can only be thought to be an absolute nightmare.”
On Friday, the death of a former Thai navy SEAL diver who lost consciousness while returning from placing air tanks deep inside the caves underscored the risky nature of the operation.
The potential for rising water and dwindling oxygen levels added to the urgency of getting the team out.
The search and rescue operation has involved dozens of international experts and rescuers, including a U.S. military team.