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'I love you': Thailand cave boys send letters to their families

Coach of football team apologises to parents for young boys who remain trapped in the complex cave system.

A relative

The coach of the youth football team that has been trapped in a cave in Thailand for the past two weeks has sent his "apologies" to the parents of the boys in a scrawled note handed to divers, as officials appear to have ruled out an immediate rescue.

The "Wild Boar" football team went exploring in the Tham Luang cave after a football game on June 23 and got trapped kilometres deep inside the cave system as floodwaters caused by heavy rains blocked the entrance.

The 12 children, aged 11 to 16, are accompanied by their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, 25.

The group was found dishevelled and emaciated, but alive on a muddy ledge by rescue divers on Monday, but rescue workers are still struggling for ways to extract the team from the complex cave system.

"To all the parents, all the kids are still fine. I promise to take the very best care of the kids," Chantawong said in a note given to a diver on Friday and published on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page on Saturday.

"Thank you for all the moral support and I apologise to the parents." 

The coach's role in the team's predicament has split Thai social media. Many have been lauding him after reports he gave his share of food to the kids before they were located and helped them get through nine days in the darkness.

Others have criticised him for agreeing to take the young boys into the cave during the monsoon season.

Other touching notes signed by members of the team were directed to their families, many of whom have kept an anxious vigil outside the cave for a fortnight. 

"Don't worry dad and mum," said a note from one of the boys who gave his nickname as "Bew". 

"I have been away for two weeks but will come back and help you sell your stuff." His family are shopkeepers.

"Love to Mum, Dad and my little brother," reads one note from 15-year-old Phiphat Photi - who is better known as "Nick". 

"If I get out, please can you bring me some grilled pork and vegetables?"

"I love you, Dad, Mum and my sister. You don't need to be worried about me. I love everyone!" wrote Pheerapat, nicknamed "Night", who turned 16 underground.

The letters provoked a surge of emotion from families, who endured nine long days before their children were found dishevelled and emaciated but alive on Monday - and now face an agonising wait for a dangerous evacuation. 

"I am so happy to see his letter, his handwriting. I'm almost crying," Night's mother Supaluk Sompiengjai, told AFP. 

"It doesn't matter how long I wait as long as he is safe."

Over 100 chimneys drilled

It is still unclear how the boys will be rescued from the range of dangerous options on the table, as the country holds its breath hoping for good news.

More than 100 chimneys are being drilled into the mountainside in a frantic bid to extract the boys from above, if the underground chambers flood and it is deemed too risky to evacuate the team by diving out through the submerged passageways. 

A team of bird's nest collectors had scoured the mountainside for openings on Thursday.

Industrial pumps are also working round the clock in an attempt to clear the tunnels and hopefully allow them to escape by foot.

"Some [of the chimneys] are as deep as 400 metres... but they still cannot find their location yet," rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told reporters, adding the mission lacked the technology "to pinpoint where they are staying".

"We estimate that [they] are 600 metres down, but we don't know the [exact] target," he said. 

The boys are also being trained in the basics of diving in case the floodwaters force authorities into a sudden evacuation through twisting and jagged passageways. 

In an update in the early hours of Saturday morning, Osottanakorn said it was "not suitable" to make the boys dive to safety yet. 

However, he indicated that further downpours might speed up attempts to extract them, despite the dangers.

Some areas in the cave complex are so narrow, the boys, who do not have diving experience, would have to swim through the muddy waters unaccompanied.

It takes rescuers, who are seasoned cave-diving experts, about six hours to reach the ledge where the boys are holding out.

On the question of dipping oxygen levels in the cave, Osottanakorn said on Saturday rescuers had managed to establish a line to pump in fresh air and had also withdrawn non-essential workers from chamber three - where the rescue base is - to preserve levels inside the cave.

The risks were underlined by the death on Friday of a former Thai military diver Saman Kunan, who ran out of oxygen while returning from the chamber where the boys are trapped. 

Kunan had been trying to establish the airline to the chamber when he passed out and perished, raising serious doubts over the safety of trying to bring the group out through the cramped, waterlogged passageways.

"We lost one man, but we still have faith to carry out our work," Yookongkaew said.

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