Famously superstitious – this is a country where it is considered unlucky to cut hair on Wednesdays – Thailand is suddenly having a serious rethink about the number 13.
No matter how many times we hear it, it is still nothing short of miraculous as that calm British voice pierces the gloom, almost hesitating to ask the question: ‘How many of you?….Thirteen? Brilliant.’
The discovery of the lost boys of Chiang Rai will surely be replayed for years to come, a 21st Century version of ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’
It is a story which gladdens the soul in so many ways. How wonderful, too, that the two modest British cave-divers at the centre of it all – John Volanthen, 47, and Rick Stanton, 56 – have a combined age of more than 100.
Last night, the Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, heaped praise on all those involved in the rescue.
Scroll down for video
How will they get them out? The choice now facing the authorities in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai district is a stark one
‘Thank you all Thais. Thank you all foreigners. Everybody is a hero and everybody helped each other,’ he told reporters.
However, the initial euphoria of finding 12 missing teenagers and their coach alive after ten days lost inside the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave labyrinth was starting to fade yesterday.
For the choice now facing the authorities in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai district is a stark one. Should they keep these disoriented and terrified boys in their subterranean prison for up to four months until the water level subsides? Or should they try to guide them out now?
The imminent arrival of monsoons in the days ahead seemed to be nudging the authorities towards the latter option yesterday.
Though the rescue teams have deployed powerful pumps to extract millions of gallons of water in recent days, there are fears that levels may be about to rise again.
‘We’re worried about the rain that’s been forecast,’ Anupong Paojinda, the interior minister, told reporters last night.
‘The boys may need to swim out. It will mean they will have to learn how to using dive equipment so they can be guided out through the water with the aid of professionals.’
The initial euphoria of finding 12 missing teenagers and their coach (pictured) alive after ten days lost inside the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave labyrinth was starting to fade yesterday
Thai soldiers are seen pumping flooded water out of the cave complex during a rescue operation for a missing youth soccer team and their coach at Tham Luang cave
This, it transpired, will be very much harder than it sounds. First, it is understood that none of the boys can swim and at least 1.5 miles of the route is understood to be flooded. It took four hours for the most experienced divers to reach the location.
Furthermore, the path involves a narrow 400-yard section now completely underwater and so clogged with mud that visibility is down to nothing. One rescuer described it as ‘swimming through cold coffee’.
In places, there is insufficient space for both a human and an air tank, meaning that divers have to remove the oxygen tanks from their backs and push them in front.
The challenges of chaperoning weak and frightened children through such an ordeal are self-evident.
Yet, the predicted run of bad weather may force the Thai government’s hand.
Throughout yesterday, further tales of heroism continued to emerge following Monday night’s dramatic discovery by the British cave divers.
Two Thai medics yesterday nobly volunteered to join the youngsters and remain with them for as long as it takes. Some reports suggest that it could be a four-month wait for the water levels to drop.
British divers Rick Stanton (right) and John Volanthen (left) were the first to reach twelve trapped schoolboys in the waters of the cave system in Tham Luang, Thailand
The 12 boys and their coach found in a flooded cave in Thailand may have to learn to dive and make some of the swim to safety themselves amid fears of fresh rainfall in the next few days
Seven members of an elite Thai naval unit, including a doctor and a counsellor, have now joined the boys, and are rebuilding their strength with water and high-energy gels of the sort used by long-distance athletes.
By last night, their diet had been extended to a sealed bag of Thai fried rice. Plans to install a telephone line were in hand, too, so the youngsters can talk to their families.
Yesterday, Ben Reymenants, a Thai-based Belgian diver who was part of the same rescue mission as the British duo, warned that it could become a race against time for the Thai authorities and for the boys.
‘They can’t swim, so they definitely can’t dive,’ he told Sky News. ‘The easiest [option] would be that they keep pumping the water out of the cave. They need another three or four feet so they can literally float them out with life jackets, but time is not on their side. They’re expecting heavy thunderstorms and rain which might flood the entire cave system.’
He also shed some light on how the boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, ended up in this ghastly situation in the first place.
It was apparently a local initiation ceremony for boys to run to the end of a cave tunnel and write their name on the wall before running back.
Foreign divers head to Tham Luang Nang Non cave to continue the rescue operation after the 12 boys and their coach were found alive in the cave
A first meal of rice and pork – packaged up in sealed portions – is being prepared for the youngsters, who have already been given energy gels and paracetamol. Pictured, a huge international team of rescuers has assembled at the mouth of the cave
While they were all inside, however, a flash flood sealed off the exit forcing the boys to head further into the mountain.
Armed with a single functioning torch, they managed to reach the spot where they have subsequently been discovered.
We can only begin to imagine the mounting sense of fear and panic as the parents of the ‘Wild Boars’ football team went in search of their missing sons back on that evening of June 23.
To put it in perspective – and we are talking about football-mad teenagers here – it was the night before England thrashed Panama in the World Cup. That is how long this lot have been missing.
A local search party finally stumbled across some of the boys’ bicycles locked to a fence and a pile of football boots. The mystery of where they had gone was solved. Now an even greater mystery lay ahead.
The following day, the police found footprints and handprints inside the caves but heavy rain had made much of the cave system impassable.
Families could only wait and try not to fear the worst, building makeshift shrines, making votive offerings and praying.
This photograph of some of the boys smiling was released by a parent after hearing the news their child had been found
Over the subsequent days, divers from the Thai navy battled against rising waters inside the caves as they were joined by a 30-strong US military team and a group of international cave divers, including the British.
Yet torrential rain brought further delays. Pumps were brought in to reduce the water levels in some chambers just to allow the rescuers to proceed to the next. They were also having to make do with very rudimentary local charts.
‘There was a 30-year-old map made by French speleologists [cave experts], with some corrections from British speleologists,’ Ben Reymenants explained yesterday.
‘That was the only basis we had. It was pure speculation that they could be there in one of two rooms. One is called Pattaya Beach [named after a well-known holiday destination] and the other is another dry air pocket.’
By Friday, service personnel from the Thai and US forces were using drones to search for alternative ways in to the labyrinth.
The rains continued but after a week of waiting, the families were still not giving up as the prime minister arrived to join them for meals and group meditation.
Their prayers seemed to be answered by a lull in the weather during which rescuers were able to extend their supply lines and build up stockpiles of oxygen tanks further inside the tunnels.
The frightened youngsters were huddled together when the rescue team discovered them trapped in the flooded cave
Like an assault on a major mountain, this was going to be a mission conducted in stages.
By Monday, there must have been considerable disappointment as the rescuers reached ‘Pattaya Beach’ only to discover it empty and gradually filling with water. At some point soon thereafter, however, Messrs Stanton and Volanthen made their sensational discovery.
News bulletins around the world were interrupted to announce their success. Here was a glorious good news story right up there with the great escapes of modern times – like the 33 Chilean miners trapped 2,300 feet below ground for 69 days in 2010. Except, of course, they had yet to escape.
Initially, Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew of the Thai navy said that there was no rush to move the boys as they were safe where they were. Others have since warned that the rain is the key factor.
A ‘comfort plan’ has been put in place to aid the boys.
Diving lines have been laid out so that other rescue team members can maintain deliveries of food, clothing and medical supplies with antibiotics and paracetamol already prescribed as a precaution.
Any plan to walk and swim the boys out could take up to six hours per child and energy levels will be crucial.
Perhaps even more impressive than their physical condition is their mental state. ‘Really when you think about it: nine days, complete darkness, no food – that mental will to live,’ said Captain Jessica Tait, a member of the US Air Force rescue contingent.
‘And these boys have it.’ Their families seem to have it, too. All remained in good spirits yesterday. ‘I want to give him a hug. I miss him very much,’ said Tham Chanthawong, the aunt of the boys’ coach.
‘In these ten days, how many million seconds have there been? I’ve missed him every second.’
This remote rural hillside near the border with Laos and Myanmar is currently a teeming metropolis of rescue workers, engineers, troops, politicians, relatives, media and local well-wishers producing round-the-clock vats of noodles for all concerned.
It has all the makings of a Hollywood epic – and, no doubt, the producers are on their way. Yet that happy ending is still some way off. Our thoughts may be focused on that fetid dungeon deep inside the mountain.
For now, though, it is the sky above which will determine what happens next.