At least six members of a Thai schoolboy soccer team have been rescued from the flooded cave where they had been trapped for more than two weeks, a senior member of the rescue team said on Sunday (July 8).
Elite divers entered the Tham Luang cave at 10am on Sunday (July 8) to carry out the dangerous rescue mission to bring out the 12 boys and their coach. They have been trapped underground since June 23.
Officials earlier said the earliest time the first survivor could emerge was 9pm (10pm Malaysian time), but local media reported that the first boy was out at 5.37pm. A second boy came out at 5.50pm.
Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai's health department and part of the rescue team, confirmed the rescue of the first two boys.
"Two kids are out. They are currently at the field hospital near the cave," he said.
"We are giving them a physical examination. They have not been moved to Chiang Rai hospital yet," Tossathep told Reuters.
One of the first boys to emerge from the cave network is Mongkol Boonpiem, 13, according to sources.
The name of the other was not immediately released.
AFP reported that four boys have reached the base rescue camp inside the cave complex and will walk out soon.
"Four boys have reached chamber three and will walk out of the cave shortly," Lieutenant-General Kongcheep, the Thai defence ministry spokesman told AFP.
Tantrawanit was referring to the area where rescue workers had set up a base.
AP reported that two ambulances were seen leaving the cave heading to a nearby helipad, and a helicopter was seen taking off.
Officials had said earlier that helicopters were on standby to take anyone rescued from the cave to a hospital.
It was unclear who was inside the ambulances or the helicopter. Officials did not immediately comment, reported AP.
DPA reported that the rescue mission today was only for six people.
"The rescue mission today was only to rescue six people" from the cave in the country's north, said an officer from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation.
"Six people have already been brought out," the unnamed officer said in an audio clip sent to media.
A press conference is expected to be held shortly.
The rescue of the first six was a stunning victory in an operation Narongsak had earlier dubbed "Mission Impossible", and led to cautious optimism that the others would also be saved.
Another official involved in the rescue operation said the initial six who had been saved formed a first group.
A second group made up of the others had also begun the journey from the chamber where they had been trapped, a rescue worker told AFP.
The quick extraction came as a surprise after one of the operation commanders said on Sunday morning the rescue efforts could take several days to complete.
The group was found dishevelled and hungry by British cave diving specialists nine days after they ventured in.
Initial euphoria over finding the boys alive quickly turned into deep anxiety as rescuers struggled to find a way to get them out.
The death of a former Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of oxygen in the cave on Friday underscored the danger of the journey even for professionals.
After a short deluge of rain on Saturday night and with more bad weather forecast, Narongsak on Sunday said authorities had to act immediately.
"There is no other day that we are more ready than today," he said. "Otherwise we will lose the opportunity."
Between the base camp inside the cave and the trapped boys were twisting, turning cave passageways with torrents of water gushing through.
The water in the cave was muddy and unclear, with one diver comparing it to a cafe latte. Ropes were installed to help guide the boys through the darkness.
Narongsak said Sunday morning two divers would escort each of the boys out of the cave.
Officials had looked at many different ways to save the boys and their coach.
One early potential plan was to leave them there for months until the monsoon season ended and the floods subsided completely, but that idea was scrapped over concerns about falling oxygen levels and waters rising too high.
More than 100 exploratory holes were also bored -- some shallow, but the longest 400 metres deep -- into the mountainside in an attempt to open a second evacuation route and avoid forcing the boys into the dangerous dive.
American technology entrepreneur Elon Musk even deployed engineers from his private space exploration firm SpaceX and Boring Co. to help.
Meanwhile rescuers fed a kilometres-long air pipe into the cave to restore oxygen levels in the chamber where the team was sheltering with medics and divers.
On Saturday, Thai Navy SEALs published touching notes scrawled by the trapped footballers to their families, who had been waiting for them agonisingly close by outside the cave entrance.
The boys urged relatives "not to worry" and asked for their favourite food once they were safely evacuated, in notes handed to divers.
In one, Pheerapat, nicknamed "Night", whose 16th birthday the group were celebrating in the cave when they became stuck on June 23, said: "I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don't need to be worried about me."