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By Duncan Forgan

CHIANG RAI, Thailand — The agonizing wait to save a soccer team of young boys and their coach trapped inside a cave in northern Thailand continues as those in charge mull the best time — and the best way — to undertake the rescue mission.

Steady rain began falling on Saturday evening, but the monsoon downpours looming in the forecast have yet to materialize. With water levels inside the massive Tham Luang cave easing thanks to draining efforts, authorities have been focusing on reducing the dangers of the rescue operation as much as possible until heavy rain or toxic air inside the cave force them to act.

A bid to rescue the members of the Wild Boars soccer team looks imminent as conditions now “most suitable” for evacuation, according to Narongsak Osottanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province. The boys and their coach have been stuck inside the cave for more than 15 days.

Reliable information is hard to come by in the camp of hundreds that has sprung up around the cave entrance. The question fueling days of speculation remains the same: Will a rescue take place over the next few hours or the next couple of days?

“Today it rained but the water level is still at a satisfactory level,” Osottanakorn told reporters at a press briefing on Saturday morning. “[The next] three to four days from now is the most favorable time for the operation and rescue mission using one of the action plans. If we wait too long, we don’t know how much rainwater will come.”

Another factor is the quality of air inside the boys’ chamber. Osottanakorn said on Friday that oxygen levels in their part of the cave had fallen to 15 percent — down from healthy levels of 21 percent.

While timing is clearly a consideration, so is the chosen method of getting the boys and their coach out of the cave. Rescuers are currently grappling with a range of escape options including scuba-diving the team through the narrow, waterlogged passages and drilling a hole in the roof of the chamber and somehow hoisting them out.

Image: Thailand cave rescue
Thai military personnel inside a cave complex during the ongoing rescue operations for the youth soccer team and their assistant coach, at Tham Luang cave in Thailand, on July 7, 2018.Thai Royal Navy / EPA

A third possibility — resupplying the team with food and other essentials for as long as it takes for waters to recede — seems to have slipped from favor. Doubts have been raised over how long the boys could cope mentally and physically with a wait of up to six more months underground.

None of the rescue options are ideal, but authorities appear to be swaying towards the idea of expert scuba divers guiding the boys and their coach through the murky cave waters to safety.

Such an undertaking though remains fraught with danger — despite improved conditions in the cave. The water inside the cave flows in strong currents and is cold and full of obstacles such as stalactites as well as sharp turns and changes in elevation.

The children are being taught how to scuba dive, but some are poor swimmers and the journey out of the cave from the chamber they are trapped in takes even experienced Navy SEALs divers as long as five or six hours to complete.

Indeed, looming in the minds of many is the death of former Thai Navy SEAL Sanam Kunan, 38, who died after losing consciousness while returning from placing air tanks deep inside the caves.

Yet spirits were resolute among members of the rescue force at the camp on Saturday. Thai volunteer Doytibet Duchanee, 40, from Chiang Rai said that he was confident that all 13 members of the group would emerge from the cave alive.

“The mood is very positive, everyone is ready to save the boys,” he said.