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Monsoon rains could damper rescue efforts to save soccer team in Thailand cave

Linh Pham/Getty Images(CHIANG RAI, Thailand) -- With heavy rains forecast for this weekend, rescuers are racing against time and Mother Nature to drain a partly flooded cave in northern Thailand where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped for days.

Thai officials are working with engineering experts to build a stone dam at a stream located south of Tham Luang Nang Non to divert the flow of water into the vast cave complex. They are also pumping out water from flooded passageways leading to the chamber where the boys and their coach were found on July 2.

Thai Public Broadcasting Service, a public and independent broadcaster in Thailand, reported that officials expect the water level inside the cave to decrease by approximately 30 to 50 centimeters per hour. Pumping can reduce the water level by 1 to 2 centimeters per hour.

"We [were] racing against time before we found them," Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn told reporters Thursday. "Now we are racing against water."

The boys, between the ages of 11 and 16, hiked into Tham Luang Nang Non, Thailand's longest cave, with their 25-year-old soccer coach after practice on June 23. It's believed that the coach often brought his team to the popular tourist site in mountainous Chiang Rai province for fun excursions.

But as the group ventured deeper into the complex, it began to rain, flooding the cave and cutting off their escape. The group forged ahead before finding a raised, dry chamber where they were stranded in total darkness.

Thai officials launched a massive search and rescue operation in Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park involving more than 1,000 people, including specialists drafted from various nations such as Australia, China, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The search and rescue teams tried anything they could to locate the boys and their coach -- deploying ultrasonic sensors into the cave, drilling through the rock and dropping survival packages down holes they found above ground in hopes the shafts connected to the cave network below.

More than a week later, two British cave divers found all 13 alive in an area that's about three miles from the cave's main entrance. The divers -- John Volanthen and Richard Stanton -- had to navigate for nearly six hours through a labyrinth of caverns and tunnels, both dry and flooded, with some barely wide enough for their diving equipment.

Thai officials said Royal Thai Navy members, a medical doctor and a nurse have been looking after the group ever since, providing them with high-protein drinks and medical assessments. While they were in relatively good shape, some of the boys complained of being weak from stress and lack of food, while others suffered from minor injuries such as scrapes and cuts.

Thai officials are also working on installing a fiber-optic phone line into the cave so the boys can speak with their families waiting anxiously outside.

"All 13 people are well," Royal Thai Navy Commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew told reporters Tuesday. "We have given the boys food, starting with easily digested and high-powered food with enough minerals."

Rescuers took advantage of the relatively dry weather this week by pumping out as much water as possible from the cave. Crews have also been scouring the region's rugged jungle-covered terrain in hopes of finding a safer way to enter the underground cave network and extract the group.

Thai groundwater specialist Tsanet Natisri told ABC News his team is focused on pumping out groundwater as well as surveying the surrounding area to locate and divert any water sources flowing into the cave complex.

"We got to do it before the rain comes. When the rain comes, the water in the cave is going to fill up and it is going to be hard to take the kids out," Natisri told ABC News in an interview Thursday.

Thai officials said the boys have been practicing breathing in diving masks in case heavy rain forces the group to swim and dive out the same way rescuers entered. But there are concerns that something could go awry on the way out, or the boys could panic underwater in the narrow tunnels and passageways.

An official with Thailand's National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission told ABC News that rescuers would like to wait until the water level inside the cave recedes so the boys can float out in life jackets rather than dive.

Monsoon rains are forecast to pummel the region Sunday as Thailand enters its wet season. Thai officials initially said it could take "weeks or months" to extract the boys and their coach, but the weather conditions might not allow for that length of time.

"What we worry most is the weather," the Chiang Rai provincial governor told reporters Thursday. "We can't risk having the flood back into the cave."

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