CHIANG RAI, Thailand — Two boys emerged from the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand on Sunday some eight hours after a squad of elite divers entered to rescue the soccer team who've been trapped for more than two weeks, signaling the final act of a saga that has gripped the world.
"Two kids are out. They are currently at the field hospital near the cave," said Tossathep Boonthong, chief of Chiang Rai's health department and part of the rescue team.
"We are giving them a physical examination. They have not been moved to Chiang Rai hospital yet," Tossathep told Reuters.
Expert divers from Thailand, the U.K. and 16 other countries are now proceeding through the waterlogged passageways of the labyrinthine network to evacuate the remaining ten members of the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach in an operation dubbed "D-Day" by Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn, the head of the rescue mission.
When they emerge at the entrance to the cave, the rest of the boys and their coach will be whisked by either ambulance or helicopter to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, about 35 miles away.
The 8th floor of the hospital has been reserved for the soccer team, the coach and their families — who have maintained a patient vigil by the entrance to the cave while the boys have been underground.
Divers paired up to bring the boys out one by one, with officials warning the entire rescue effort could take days.
Some of the children are poor swimmers, and the three mile journey out of the cave from the chamber they are trapped in takes even experienced Navy SEALs divers as long as five or six hours to complete.
"There's no time limit on the operation," said the governor. "It depends on the weather. It depends on the water levels. If something changes we'll stop. But I expect the operation to finish in the next couple of days."
Trapped but resilient
The 12 boys — aged between 11 and 16 — entered the massive cave complex on the frontier of Thailand and Myanmar with their 25-year-old coach on June 23. The group became stranded after torrential monsoon rains caused the system to flood and were missing for nine days before being discovered by two British divers.
The resilience of the boys and their coach captured the imagination of a global audience. Before their discovery, they subsisted by licking drops of water off the cave wall.
The mood lifted after the team was found, but elation at their discovery quickly turned to fear as authorities mulled over several rescue options — all of them fraught with danger.
A daredevil swoop for the team through holes drilled in the ceiling of the chamber was considered. So too was the alternative of keeping the boys and their coach in the cave supplied with provisions until the waters receded.
Elon Musk even got in the act, sending Space X and Boring Company engineers to Thailand to explore ways to help and offering to build a "kid sized submarine" to rescue the teens.
Eventually authorities went with what they deemed to be their most logical option.
Throughout the drama of the last few days, the group have remained resolute. A series of letters sent out through divers Saturday expressed love to their families, a desire for tasty food and hope that they would survive the ordeal and be out soon.
Speculation that the long-awaited operation was about to happen had been building since the early hours on Sunday.
Reporters approaching the muddy camp at the entrance to the cave where they have been stationed during the drama along with first responders, rescue workers, officials and a legion of yellow-shirted volunteers, were prevented from entering by police.
The atmosphere was charged with excitement even before the governor made public the decision to act.
In Mae Sai, the town closest to the cave, locals too were cautiously hopeful about the possibility that the boys and their coach may soon be back above ground.
"It seems positive," said one shopkeeper at the local market. "It's been awful for the boys and their families and everybody in this community is desperate to see them safe and sound."
The rescue mission was announced on what was otherwise just another gloomy, wet rainy season morning with brooding clouds spitting steady showers.
Weather had always been the key factor in when the rescue bid was launched. A window of relatively dry conditions closed in a deluge of downpours on Saturday evening, and with more heavy rain forecast for the next few days authorities decided they could not afford to wait any longer.
"We have reached peak readiness," continued the governor. "The meaning of readiness is… perfect weather, water and the kids' readiness, physical and mentally."
Optimism is high that the divers can successfully complete their mission and get the boys and their coach out of the cave unscathed. Water levels inside the cave have dropped 30cm since Saturday, meaning that long stretches of the route to the entrance are now walk-able.
The boys and their coach, meanwhile, are said to be mentally prepared to tackle the fraught journey through the tunnels.
"Their health and their minds are ready and they have knowledge of the mission," added Narongsak. "They are ready to come out."
It will be an arduous operation, but the rescue teams are prepared.
"Finding the boys doesn't mean we've finished our mission. It is only a small battle we've won, but the war has not ended," said Narongsak.
"The war ends when we win all three battles — the battles to search, rescue and send them home."