Rains hit Thai cave where rescuers face 'war with water and time'

CHIANG RAI, Thailand, July 7 (Reuters) - A heavy rainshower hit northern Thailand late on Saturday, worsening conditions at the cave where rescuers were waging a "war with water and time" to save 12 trapped boys and their soccer coach, with a rescue possible within days.

The rain could potentially set back progress made over the last week to drain the Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai.

With oxygen levels dropping and rainstorms forecast, time is running out on a plan to teach the boys -- some as young as 11 and not strong swimmers -- to make a dive through narrow, waterlogged passageways that would challenge experienced cavers.

The best window for a rescue could come in the next three or four days, the leader of the rescue effort said on Saturday.

RELATED: Members of Thai children's soccer team found alive at Tham Luang caves

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Members of Thai children's soccer team found alive at Tham Luang caves
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Members of Thai children's soccer team found alive at Tham Luang caves
Rescue teams search the Tham Luang caves for 13 members of an under-16 soccer team, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Rescue teams search the Tham Luang caves for 13 members of an under-16 soccer team, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Relatives pray outside the Tham Luang caves, where 13 members of an-under 16 soccer team are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Thai military personnel and rescuers are seen outside the Tham Luang caves, where 13 members of an-under 16 soccer team are trapped, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Soldiers read a map near the Tham Luang caves during a search for 12 members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Chayut Setboonsarng
A military personnel is seen inside of the Tham Luang caves where 13 members of an under-16 soccer team were trapped in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Rescue workers are seen inside of the Tham Luang caves where 13 members of an under 16 soccer team were trapped in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
Journalists work in Tham Luang caves during a search for 12 members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A family member cries near Tham Luang caves during a search for 12 members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Family members pass their time near Tham Luang caves during a search for 12 members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Christian volunteers pray near the Tham Luang cave complex during a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A soldier hold a map as he works near the Tham Luang cave complex during a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
British diver Richard William Stanton arrives to the Tham Luang caves during a search for the members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Rescue workers work near the Tham Luang caves during a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Thailand's Prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha clean wipes sweat from his face as he meets with family members near the Tham Luang cave complex during an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Soldiers unload aids near the Tham Luang cave complex, as a search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Soldiers and rescue workers work in Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A soldier walks in Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A diver walks in Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Soldiers and rescue workers work in Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A military helicopter lands near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A military helicopter take off near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Soldiers and rescue workers work near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
A spirit and Buddha state image are seen in front of a cave near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Soldiers and rescue workers work near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Divers equipment is seen near Tham Luang cave complex, as an ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
An ongoing search for members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach continues, near Tham Luang cave complex, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Journalists try to interview a military officer near the Tham Luang cave complex, as members of an under-16 soccer team and their coach have been found alive, according to a local media's report, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
TOPSHOT - Indian schoolchildren hold placards and pictures during a prayer event for the safe rescue of young football players and their coach stuck in a cave in Thailand, in Ahmedabad on July 9, 2018. - Rescue workers dived deep inside a flooded Thai cave for a second straight day on July 9 in a treacherous bid to save a group of young footballers, with the mission chief promising more 'good news' after four of the 13 were saved. (Photo by SAM PANTHAKY / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 9: Classmates of Adul, one of the boys trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave, visit a tribute for the Wild Boars soccer team at the entrance of Ban Waingphan school on July 9, 2018 in Chiangrai, Thailand. Divers began an effort to pull the 12 boys and their soccer coach on Sunday morning after they were found alive in the cave at northern Thailand. Videos released by the Thai Navy SEAL shows the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach are in good health in Tham Luang Nang Non cave and the challenge now will be to extract the party safely. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 9: Classmates of Adul, one of the boys trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave, visit a tribute for the Wild Boars soccer team at the entrance of Ban Waingphan school on July 9, 2018 in Chiangrai, Thailand. Divers began an effort to pull the 12 boys and their soccer coach on Sunday morning after they were found alive in the cave at northern Thailand. Videos released by the Thai Navy SEAL shows the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach are in good health in Tham Luang Nang Non cave and the challenge now will be to extract the party safely. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 10: A helicopter transport boys rescued from Tham Luang Nang Non cave from a cave to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on July 10, 2018 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Divers began an effort to free the 12 boys and their soccer coach on Sunday morning after they were found alive in the cave at northern Thailand. Videos released by the Thai Navy SEAL shows the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach are in good health in Tham Luang Nang Non cave and the challenge now will be to extract the party safely. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
An ambulance exits from the Tham Luang cave area as operations continue for the 8 boys and their coach trapped at the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 9, 2018. - Four boys among the group of 13 trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than a fortnight were rescued on July 8 after surviving a treacherous escape, raising hopes elite divers would also save the others soon. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
Thai policemen secure the road leading to Tham Luang cave area as rescue operations continue for those still trapped inside the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 9, 2018. - Four boys among the group of 13 trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than a fortnight were rescued on July 8 after surviving a treacherous escape, raising hopes elite divers would also save the others soon. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
A sand art about Thailand boys rescue tragedy is seen at the Bay of Bengal Sea's eastern coast beach, creating by Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnik for public awareness at Puri 65 km away from the eastern Indian state Odisha's capital city Bhubaneswar, on July 10, 2018. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Police and military personnel use umbrellas to cover around a stretcher near a helicopter and an ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai on July 9, 2018, as rescue operations continue for those still trapped inside the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district. - Four boys among the group of 13 trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than a fortnight were rescued on July 8 after surviving a treacherous escape, raising hopes elite divers would also save the others soon. (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Thai soldiers walk out from the Tham Luang cave area as operations continue for the 8 boys and their coach trapped at the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 9, 2018. - Four boys among the group of 13 trapped in a flooded Thai cave for more than a fortnight were rescued on July 8 after surviving a treacherous escape, raising hopes elite divers would also save the others soon. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
Thai police monitor a press conference by officials at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital in Chiang Rai on July 10, 2018 as the rescue for a group of boys and their coach trapped in a cave in nearby Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park continues. - Rescuers raced to save four young footballers and their coach who remain trapped in a flooded Thai cave on July 10, as heavy rains threatened an already perilous escape mission that has seen eight of the boys extracted in 'good health'. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
A nurse adjusts her facemask at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital in Chiang Rai on July 10, 2018, as the rescue for a group of boys and their coach trapped in a cave in nearby Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park continues. - Rescuers raced to save four young footballers and their coach who remain trapped in a flooded Thai cave on July 10, as heavy rains threatened an already perilous escape mission that has seen eight of the boys extracted in 'good health'. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the media report from a hill near the Tham Luang cave area as the operations continue for those still trapped inside the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018. - Rescuers raced to save four young footballers and their coach who remain trapped in a flooded Thai cave on July 10, as heavy rains threatened an already perilous escape mission that has seen eight of the boys extracted in 'good health'. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
An ambulance leaves the Tham Luang cave area as operations continue for those still trapped inside the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018. - Rescuers raced to save four young footballers and their coach who remain trapped in a flooded Thai cave on July 10, as heavy rains threatened an already perilous escape mission that has seen eight of the boys extracted in 'good health'. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
A Thai military police salutes an ambulance leaving from the Tham Luang cave area as the operations continue for those still trapped inside the cave in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018. - Rescuers raced to save four young footballers and their coach who remain trapped in a flooded Thai cave on July 10, as heavy rains threatened an already perilous escape mission that has seen eight of the boys extracted in 'good health'. (Photo by YE AUNG THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 10: Onlookers watch and cheer as ambulances transport the 10th rescued schoolboy from a helipad nearby to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on July 10, 2018 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Divers began an effort to free the 12 boys and their soccer coach on Sunday morning after they were found alive in the cave at northern Thailand. Thai Navy SEALs have confirmed that the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have now all been extracted safely. (Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 10: Onlookers watch and cheer as ambulances transport the 10th rescued schoolboy from a helipad nearby to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on July 10, 2018 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Divers began an effort to free the 12 boys and their soccer coach on Sunday morning after they were found alive in the cave at northern Thailand. Thai Navy SEALs have confirmed that the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have now all been extracted safely. (Photo by Linh Pham/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - JULY 10: Onlookers watch and cheer as ambulances transport some of the rescued schoolboys from a helipad to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on July 10, 2018 in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Thai Navy SEALs confirmed on Tuesday that the 12 boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach have now all been extracted safely 17 days after they got trapped underground alive in a cave in northern Thailand. The boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach are to spend at least a week in a hospital in Chiang Rai Province and remain under observation due to a risk of rare infections. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
Volunteers celebrate at a makeshift press centre in Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018, after the twelve boys and their football coach were rescued. - The final five members of a young football team were rescued from a flooded Thai cave on July 10, after spending 18 harrowing days trapped deep inside, completing an astonishing against-the-odds rescue mission that captivated the world. (Photo by Ye Aung THU / AFP) (Photo credit should read YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman reacts near a hospital where the children's football team members are treated after being rescued, in Chiang Rai on July 10, 2018. - All 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand for more than a fortnight have been rescued in an unprecedented three-day mission that had all the features of a blockbuster film. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
Chiang Rai province acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn (2L) greets journalists during his news conference near Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Journalists celebrate before a news conference near Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
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Narongsak Osottanakorn's cautious message of hope came a day after the death of a Thai rescue diver, a grim turn in what began two weeks ago as an adventure to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys.

Up on the hill, where rescuers are seeking alternative routes down into the cave, another accident occurred on Saturday night: a vehicle skidded off a dirt track, seriously injuring the driver and a passenger and harming four other volunteers, authorities said.

Earlier, at the sprawling cave mouth below, lines of frogmen and soldiers with flashlights could be seen emerging from the darkness, as generators chugged and pumped water out from blue nylon pipes.

Dozens of Royal Thai Army soldiers rested on rocks outside the cave, with two of them saying they had been told by superiors that the rescue operation would likely begin Sunday or the day after.

Authorities tightened a security cordon, draping plastic sheets around the approach to the cave, further giving the sense that a rescue might be imminent.

This could not be independently corroborated by Reuters, but Narongsak, a former provincial governor, told reporters earlier on Saturday that the next three to four days was "the best and most ideal time for the rescue operation."

"The current situation, with the air and water levels and the boys' health, is the best yet," he added. "We're still at war with water and time."

The discovery of the boys inside the cave by British divers on Monday "was just a small victory," he said.

For the first time since they were found, the boys communicated by letter with their relatives -- many camped outside the cave's entrance. The boys wrote with both homesickness and humor.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted on Saturday that an escape pod and inflatable tube he was developing might be used to help the rescue. He gave no details. The Thai defense ministry said a team from a Musk firm with drilling and exploration knowhow should reach the cave on Sunday.

Several monks in orange robes sat at a small shrine with two golden deer statues near the cave mouth, chanting, as a middle-aged woman knelt and prayed before them.

An assistant told Reuters the ceremony was to "open up" the cave mouth to allow for an easy and safe return for the boys.

 

"DOUBLE POSITIVE"

Ivan Katadzic, a Danish diving instructor who has been ferrying oxygen tanks into the cave, said after a dive on Friday he was "double positive" about the mission because the water level had dropped considerably.

Katadzic has not dived the final kilometer to where the boys are stranded on a muddy bank, the most dangerous part of the dive, during which rescuers have to hold their oxygen tanks in front of them to squeeze through submerged holes.

Alternative rescue plans include stocking the cave with supplies and an oxygen line to keep the boys alive for months until Thailand's monsoon season ends, or drilling a shaft down from the forest above.

Narongsak said the drills would have to pierce 600 meters (1,970 feet) of fragile limestone rock to reach the boys and rescuers were discussing drilling angles.

Besides looking for possible holes from above, the team on the hill above is trying to block holes and divert streams that channel water into the cave before the weather turns.

"Everything is a race against time," said Kamolchai Kotcha, an official of the forest park where the cave complex is located. His team would camp out on the hill to try and finish its work before the rain came, he said.

(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and John Geddie; Writing by John Geddie; editing by John Stonestreet)

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