"Our preparation is on top today, today is D-day," said Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn, adding that the families had been informed of the plan and had given their support to the rescue effort.
At 10 a. M. Local time, an international contingent of 13 specialized divers descended into the watery network of underground tunnels under the Mae Sai Mountains, carrying with it the hopes of an entire nation.
The plight of affected children who remained trapped inside the caves for 15 days, has moved to Thailand, as rescue efforts have become increasingly urgent.
Rescuers have what has been described as a shrinking window of opportunity, and forecasters predict the return of heavy monsoon rains in the following days, effectively sealing the cave until October.
Race against time
On the site of the caves, volunteers who attended the operation described the rescue attempt as a "now or never" scenario. 19659002] The children and their trainer are huddled together in a small chamber 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) inside the cave, surrounded by floodwater and with a limited supply of oxygen.
To reach them, divers will need to navigate successfully through a network of narrow and extensive tunnels, with officials close to the operation suggesting that rescuers will use a "friend" system, with each diver paired with a child. Extra oxygen tanks will also be placed along the route.
Signs that a rescue operation was underway were evident in the hours leading up to the announcement when authorities installed a large green tarpaulin around the entrance to the cave and removed the means of camping in a separate location.
On the road that leads to the tunnels, an almost continuous convoy of trucks and military vehicles delivered troops and equipment of medical equipment, including a large stash of oxygen tanks. On Saturday afternoon, numerous international military advisers could be seen entering the site, followed later by four monks in orange robes.
At the entrance to the site, a brand-new white flag just fluttered in the wind, a Buddhist sign to indicate positive energy.
The hopes had been high that an alternative means of rescue was discovered. For days, specialized teams have explored the mountains above the cave in search of a possible hidden entry point.
The divers previously described the conditions in the cave network as some of the most extreme they have faced.
The decision to eliminate children who wear divers would not have been taken lightly. On Friday, an old SEAL of the Thai Navy died after returning from an operation to deliver oxygen tanks to the cave where the children are.
Even if the divers are successful, it will be many hours before the children's destination and their rescuers will be known. Thai authorities say it takes about 11 hours for divers to complete the round trip.
Finnish volunteer diver Mikko Paasi, a long-time resident of Thailand, said that the death of the SEAL of the Thai navy had changed the mood on the ground and made it a reality for rescuers how dangerous it had become. mission.
"You can definitely feel it has an effect, but we're moving forward, we're all professionals, so we're trying to save it and keep it from happening again," he said, adding, "Everyone is focusing on getting these children outside, keeping them alive or taking them out "
In the hours before the rescue, a letter that the children sent to their families was published on the Thai stamps & # 39; Facebook page. The letter shows the boys in a good mood despite their terrible experience.
With neat blue print, Chanin Viboonrungruang, 11, the youngest of the group, told his parents not to worry, and said he expected to eat fried. chicken.
His parents, who along with other families, have maintained a constant vigil on the site since the children were trapped.
Reading the letter on Saturday night, Chanin's father, Tanawut Viboonrungruang, said he felt a great sense of relief. "I had worried about my son, that he would be exhausted, that he would be tired," he said.
For families, waiting for news of the rescue of their children has been unbearable.
"I was worried about him, since there are obstacles to get him out of. Everyone knows it's hard to stay inside (the cave) but officials are trying to help him," Viboonrungruang said.
"I hope he's still healthy and that he's leaving soon, I want to send him my support, I do not have the opportunity to talk to him," he said. said
Jo Shelly of CNN, Kocha Olarn, Sandi Sidhu and journalist Lalinda Siripornmanut contributed to this report.