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The terrifying reality of what the rescue operation looks like for Thai boys.

As the sun set on Saturday, June 23, a number of parents whose sons played for the local Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soccer team in Chiang Rai, Thailand, started to worry.

By 7pm, their teenage boys, aged between 11 and 16, hadn’t returned from a practice soccer game, which was to be followed by an excursion at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park. When they called the head coach of the team, Nopparat Khanthavong, he immediately made some phone calls, and learned that the 25-year-old assistant coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, and the rest of the team, had been exploring in the Tham Luang caves.

Nopparat quickly made his way there, to discover bikes and bags at the entrance to the cave, and water seeping out.

Speaking to The Washington Post, the 37-year-old said, “I screamed — ‘Ek! Ek! Ek!’ My body went completely cold.”

It’s believed the team and their coach ventured into the cave for an ‘initiation ceremony’ which involved writing their names on the cave walls. After the group entered, however, it started to rain, sending floodwater into the mouth of the cave. The monsoon flooding blocked the group’s exit route, so they kept walking until they found a space that was slightly elevated and dry. This is where they remain stuck.

Ekapol Chanthawong with members of his soccer team. Image via Facebook.
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Now, 17 days later, eight of the 12 boys trapped in the cave have been rescued, with four boys and their coach still stuck, four kilometres deep and hours away from safety.

As the world holds its breath, waiting for news about the remaining rescues, an expert has detailed the reality of the cave's escape route - which she calls "the scariest environment imaginable".

Kera Rolsen is a certified cave diver with over 20 years diving experience. In a series of tweets on Monday, Rolsen shared her knowledge of what the dive journey to safety is like for the schoolboy soccer team and their coach.

"For once, I'm 100% qualified to talk about current news," she wrote. "Cave diving is a monster."

Rolsen explained that while open water diving is well lit, with a low current and a low risk of death, cave diving is muddy and dark, with a medium to high current. It's more dangerous than other types of diving, she says, and making an error with your gear or gas calculations can be fatal.

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Rolsen also emphasised the degree of training required for cave diving. While most divers don't even attempt cave diving without significant experience in open water, these young boys are entering the "scariest environment imaginable" with a severe lack of skills, poor swimming ability, and weakness from lack of food.

Divers have been training the boys in diving for the past week, but the death of 38-year-old former Navy SEAL Saman Kunan on Thursday, who died bringing oxygen tanks to the boys, underscores the risks associated with this environment.

The potential for panic is also a very real threat. If the boys become anxious or distressed during their rescue, there's the risk they'll become disoriented, lose their awareness of the thin gold line guiding them, or place further stress on the divers assisting them.

"Every young man that emerges from that cave alive will be a testament to the indomitable human spirit," Rolsen said, before adding that she hopes these confronting details lay out "the magnitude of what's going on in Thailand right now".

ABC reports that the rescue trip with each boy takes about eight hours (although Monday's good conditions reduced this time), and is an incredibly delicate operation. On their way out, the boys will need to dive and wade through muddy waters, which, in some parts, has almost no visibility.

Inside the rescue of the eight boys. Post continues after video.

According to ABC's South-East Asia correspondent Liam Cochrane, the narrowest gap in the journey is just 38cm in diameter - only slightly bigger than the width of a school ruler. At this point, the boys will have to be pushed through the gap, which is only large enough to fit their head through.

"The man who is leading this rescue operation described them as having the boys underneath them and swimming below and guiding them through the waters with almost no visibility," said Cochrane.

Rolsen also explained that the weight of the gear the boys will have to swim with, as well as the temperature of the water, are further obstacles.

One Twitter user asked the diver why the rescuers haven't thought to sedate the boys in order to stop them from panicking in such extreme conditions. Rolsen, however, believes this would be medically risky, and would prevent the boys and their coach from being active participants in their rescue.

As rescuers hope for a stop to the heavy rain in the Tham Luang caves, divers have spoken about the conditions of the escape route. "It's dangerous to the most experienced divers to go through," one diver told Reuters. "It's pretty scary."

Another described it as a "labyrinth" that is extremely hard to navigate.

"It's very dark inside even with the spotlight," said a former veteran SEAL working on the mission.

"Most of the time we work with our instinct, in some position, alone in silence and in the dark."

For the remaining boys, and their coach, safety must feel very, very far away.

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