Ex-Thai Navy Seal dies during cave rescue operation: Why it's so hard to save football team

A former Thai military diver died during operations to rescue 12 boys who are currently trapped in a flooded cave in Changi Rai on Thursday night (July 5).

Retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Kunam, died at around 2am while on his way out of the Tham Luang cave complex, where the football team and its 25-year-old coach have been stranded since June 23.

"His job was to deliver oxygen (in the cave). He did not have enough on his way back," authorities told the media.

The 38-year-old volunteer became unconscious and was declared dead after attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

(Photo: The Nation)

His death marks the first major setback in the mission to rescue the "Wild Boars" football team, who have been trapped underground in the cave for nearly two weeks.

Here's a look at why the rescue operation is fraught with perils and risks.

1. The boys cannot swim and the cave system is still mostly flooded

(Photo: Thai Navy Seal / Facebook)

Many of the boys, who are aged between 11 and 16, cannot swim and none of them have diving experience.

Although they are receiving rudimentary dive training and swimming lessons now while they wait, there are fears they may be stuck in the cave for months if conditions do not improve.

The boys also remain weak, even after a few days of food and medicine. Two of them and their coach were said to have been suffering from severe malnutrition and exhaustion.

Even rescuers, all highly trained professionals, are taking six hours just to get to where the boys are located, said online reports.

2. The cave is dark and narrow, while the currents are strong

Visibility is limited in the cave (Photo: Thai Navy Seal / Facebook)

Trained divers passing through the cave are left with cuts and bruises due to the dreary conditions of the environment. This means an even more treacherous journey for the boys.

In addition, some areas where diving is necessary are tight and may require the boys to swim through murky waters unaccompanied.

(Photo: The Straits Times)

There is also mounting concern for the mental and physical health of the boys, who have spent prolonged time in the "dark, claustrophobic cave complex".

According to reports, experts say the risk of psychological damage is high for youngsters trapped in traumatic conditions, while the lack of light may cause confusion.

3. It's monsoon season and there's a "race against water"

Royal Thai Navy SEAL divers inspecting the water-filled tunnel in the cave on June 29 (Photo: AFP)

Volunteers and the military are pumping water out of the deluged cave round the clock, reducing the flooding by 1cm an hour.

However, efforts are hampered by rains as the monsoon season continues.

Chiang Rai provincial governor Narongsak Osottanakorn, who is helming the rescue operation, called the mission "a race against water".

"Our biggest concern is the weather. We are calculating how much time we have if it rains, how many hours and days," he told reporters.

(Photo: The Straits Times)

"We are draining as much as we can,” said Khao Khieupakdi, a Bangkok disaster prevention official. "I am concerned as the forecast is for more rain."

The meteorological department warned yesterday that up to 60 per cent of the country's north, including Chiang Rai, can expect heavy rain from July 7 to July 12.

A July 4 video released by the Thai Navy Seals on Facebook shows the football team in good spirits despite their predicament.


And if anyone can understand the boys' ordeal, it would be the 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days trapped 625 meters underground when the San José Mine collapsed in 2010.

One of them, Mario Sepulveda, tweeted a video yesterday that showed him greeting and encouraging the football team.

He said: "I would like to send greetings and a lot of strength to the authorities and the families of these 12 children.

"I have no doubt that if the government of that country puts in everything and makes all the humanly possibly efforts, this rescue will be successful. May God bless you!"

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