Rescuers looking for 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach have discovered a hidden opening deep in the jungle that may be a new point of entry to the cave system in which the group is suspected to be stranded.
Trekkers discovered the potential access point in the Pha Mee hills above the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system and are now exploring the possibility that it may connect with the caves below, in which the group is thought to have been trapped for almost a week.
The natural chimney, which is around 1.5 meters in diameter and at least 22 meters (72 feet) deep, was found to the north of the opening of the cave, where the boys’ bikes were found last Saturday.
Approaching the tunnels from above is “more promising,” according to British rescuers at the scene, as it bypasses a passage blocked by flood waters.
Two British cave experts entered the chimney Friday morning, managing to descend to a depth of about 20 meters, before being relieved by another team. Though this is not the first natural chimney found on Pha Mee, it remains the most promising, according to search and rescue teams on site.
Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the group of rescuers has checked the area, abseiled down the shaft to a depth of about 40 meters, and are exploring further.
Heat imaging drones are also being used to search the hilly terrain above the cave system. Drilling to open up a new access point should start Saturday, when rescuers expect to receive results of a scan of the mountain, which they hope will reveal the most promising sites.
Earlier, trekking teams found a vertical shaft that appeared to lead into the cave and dropped in food and drinking water, in case the group was nearby, Thanya Netithamkul, director general of the national park, wildlife and plants department said.
The terrain is tough going – mountainous and heavily forested, slowing down teams looking for other possible points of entry, and the rains across that region have been “relentless,” according to CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam.
“It is the southwest monsoon and the rainfall continues to come,” he said, which further complicates the rescue efforts.
British caver Robert Harper told CNN that, working off old surveys and more updated mapping from recent expeditions into the cave, the caving team was attempting to access what is believed to be the end of the cave system, in an attempt to check a chamber off the list of places that they think the group might be.
“You have to be very cautious, because we’re not sure how accurate the old survey is but that’s why we decided to come and look here because Vernon (Unsworth, a caver who lives in Chiang Rai), who has explored the far end of (this section of the) cave knows that there is a high chamber and it’s unlikely – very unlikely, but we have to rule out all possibilities – that the children could have got to that chamber.”
He said that the most difficult obstacle the caving team has faced so far is the “level of the water, and the power of the water.”
Alongside the British caving experts who have been brought in to the search area, a US military search and rescue team has also joined the rescue effort, at the request of the Thai government, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn said.
“The United States team delivers search and rescue experience and capacity to the already tremendous efforts underway by Thai authorities. We hope the players and their coach will be brought home quickly and safely.”
The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have been missing since Saturday afternoon, when a park officer spotted bicycles near the entrance to the off-limits cave complex.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the site Friday, meeting with officials and the families of the boys. He urged that the rescuers proceed quickly, but with caution – especially in regards to setting up electrical systems to enable the water pumps to run efficiently.
The boys and their coach are believed to have crawled into the large series of caves through a narrow, 15-meter (50-foot) channel.
A sign at the entrance to the cave – a popular tourist attraction – warns of danger during the rainy season, which is just getting underway.
Rescue teams are currently entertaining two theories about where the boys might be, working from the starting point where their bags were found, at a fork 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from the mouth of the cave, deep into the underground tunnels.
They could have turned left or right at this point, but Thai rescuers have been working on the assumption that they took the closest high ground, to the left – heading south.
UK experts now wonder if they went right, which would have taken them to the highest ground overall – heading north, which is where the chimney is being explored.
Divers continue to work at the mouth of the cave, and drilling is underway at several points in the cave complex, primarily to relieve the flooding.
Pumps are also being used to try to dispel the water from cave tunnels, rather than provide access.
Josh Morris, the founder of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, who is familiar with the terrain, says that despite the ticking clock, there is reason to be optimistic about the group’s survival.
“I’m sure there is hope left. The boys are still within the first week and the boys who have been going into this cave, from what I have understood, have been in the cave many times before, so it is highly likely that they kind of knew where they were going and were able to get themselves to a safe place,” he told CNN’s “Connect the World.”
“The problem is because of the heavy rains that have been hitting the northern Thailand hills for the last two weeks there is just increasing levels of water continuing to grow. So that’s really the biggest challenge right now.”
Despite the inclement weather, relatives remained positive that their loved ones would be found. Sudsakorn Sutham, the father of one missing boy, Prachak, said he is certain the authorities will bring the boys home.
“I feel (the situation) is getting better and better. I am confident that my son will come back,” he said. “There’s so much help here.”
Social media also echoed a general sense of optimism, with Twitter users posting messages of encouragement. One, who uses the handle Thesischer, wrote:
“You are allowed to cry. You are allowed to scream. But you are not allowed to give up.”
User Rativenum tweeted a cartoon of the rescuers approaching the group, with the English hashtags “hope,” and “don’t give up.”
Local media continues to cover the story in detail.
CNN’s Kocha Olarn reported from Chiang Rai in Thailand, while Euan McKirdy wrote and reported from Hong Kong.