Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, on Friday dispatched engineers from his companies, SpaceX and The Boring Company, to Thailand to help with the rescue of 12 young boys and their football coach who have been trapped for two weeks in the Tham Luang caves of northern Chiang Rai province.
Mr Musk initially responded to requests for help from Twitter users, but later outlined a more detailed strategy using his companies’ pumps, battery packs and tubes, to help the boys, aged 11-16, escape the horrific imprisonment they have now endured for two weeks.
The businessman suggested inserting a one-metre diameter nylon tube through the cave network and inflating it with air "like a bouncy castle" to create an air tunnel underwater against the cave roof, allowing the children to walk through it and duck through the narrow sections.
His idea comes amid increasingly desperate efforts to free the youth football team through the onerous method of draining water from a 2.5-mile-long twisting and submerged labyrinth of tunnels separating them from the exit.
On Friday night, speculation rose ahead of a press conference with the interior minister that the evacuation of the boys might be imminent.
Thailand cave rescue – Dam location
However, the governor, Narongsak Osottanakorn, on Friday night denied the reports from Belgian media that the evacuation was imminent, saying there would be no immediate diving attempt. "They cannot dive at this time," he said.
He added that the plan was to bring the trapped boys out if the rains worsen. "If we think the big rain is coming then we will have to get them out," he said.
"We have plans and options but if the situation changes we have to adapt to it. This depends on the readiness of the kids to be able to dive."
A successful extraction would be a huge boost to rescuers who were mourning the tragic death of one of the divers.
The death of Saman Kunan, 38, a volunteer and former Thai Navy Seal, came as a cruel jolt to the tireless efforts of divers, engineers and caving experts who have been working furiously to extract the children aged 11-16, and their coach, 25, since they were found sheltering in a muddy chamber on Monday.
Petty Officer Kunan died on his way out of the cave complex after delivering air tanks to different locations along the treacherous submerged route that leads to the chamber some 2.5 miles from the main exit. “His job was to deliver oxygen.
He did not have enough on his way back,” confirmed Passakorn Boonyalak, Chiang Rai’s deputy governor.
Kunan, who was a professionally trained diver, appeared from his Facebook page to also be an avid runner and cyclist.
The tragedy was a frightening reminder of how dangerous it would be to get the boys, who in a weakened state and some unable to swim, to dive through winding, dark passages which take even fit, expert divers five hours, using four oxygen tanks, to battle through strong currents.
“Inside the cave is tough,” said Thai Seal commander Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew.
But he added: “I can guarantee that we will not panic, we will not stop our mission, we will not let the sacrifice of our friend go to waste.”
Divers have questioned the high-risk strategy of extracting the boys through diving out, even though they are currently being trained to use scuba gear.
Bin Bunluerit, famous for working with the Ruamkatanyu Foundation, one of Thailand’s largest rescue foundations said on Thursday that it was too dangerous.
Tham Luang cave rescue options
It’s “not working,” he said of efforts to drain the floodwater from the cave complex.
“The water is still not going down. If you want it to go down by a metre, it’s going to take up to a month,” he told Khaosod news.
But deteriorating conditions in the boys’ makeshift shelter, where oxygen levels have dropped to 15 per cent, from a usual level of 21 per cent, are raising anxiety levels, particularly with a dire weather forecast for the coming week that could result in them being trapped for months.
A key task on Friday is to lay a pipe into their chamber to provide more air. But a search to find openings above the roof of the cave, in the hope of lifting the boys out, has been stepped up.
A team of bird nest hunters and cliff climbing experts has been drafted in to sweep through thick foliage on the mountain over the cave to find possible new shafts inside.
Meanwhile, an army of local volunteers has descended on the caves to support the rescuers.
Panee Pakdee, 62, told The Telegraph she had been cooking 3,000 eggs a day for the teams since the start of the boys’ ordeal. “I wake up at 6am to take the first bus and then go into the kitchen as soon as I arrive to fry eggs,” she said.
Ms Panee first learned about the children’s plight at her church, and could not sit still after seeing reports on the TV.
“I came to give support and to pray to the Lord to open up the way for the kids,” she said.
But amid the sadness of the day, FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino offered a glimmer of hope for the boys.
“If, as we all hope, they are reunited with their families in the coming days and their health allows them to travel, FIFA would be delighted to invite them to attend the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow as our guests,” he wrote in a letter to the Football Association of Thailand.
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