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Foreign Divers Back for Clean-Up at Chiang Rai’s Tham Luang Cave

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CHIANG RAI – Divers involved in the rescue last July of 12 young footballers and their coach from the flooded Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand’s Mae Sai District of Chiang Rai will reunite in coming weeks to remove up to 100 tonnes of equipment left behind.

A reconnaissance dive on Thursday by Thai navy SEALs and Finnish diver Mikko Paasi was the first since July 10 when the last members of the Wild Boars team were brought out alive, followed by Australian anaesthetist Richard Harris, his dive buddy Craig Challen and two Thai navy SEALS who had stayed with the boys since their discovery eight days earlier.

Minutes after they emerged, pumps that had been clearing water from the cave failed and floodwaters rushed in, sending clean-up workers running for their lives and forcing them to leave ­behind tonnes of spent air tanks, dive equipment, pumps, pipes and pullies.

Family members of the young boys and more than 100 stalls selling souvenirs, T-shirts and food have sprung up along the road that leads to it, near the town of Mae Sai.

Six months later, with waters subsiding within the massive cave, the clean-up must begin. Many of the Thailand-based ­divers, as well as cave experts, rangers, engineers and other volunteers who helped in the mammoth rescue effort, are expected to take part.

Mr Paasi, one of the 18 international “all-star” divers who helped ease the tranquilized and cuffed boys one by one through several kilometers of dark, flooded cave chambers, told reporters before entering the cave for the first time in six months this week that he was looking forward to resolving questions that had haunted him since the rescue.

It was the 43-year-old Kho Tao-based diving instructor whose job it was to take each boy through one of the worst choke-points, and who was forced to ­double back during the first rescue after getting stuck.

“It was too tight. I couldn’t let go of the rope (on which the first boy was tethered) for a second,” he recalled this week. “Maybe it was five minutes I was stuck there. I don’t know. Time stopped. I really want to see that spot without water in it. That choke-point has been in my dreams.”

The Wild Boars’ experience has turned the young footballers and their coach into celebrities, and the small Golden Triangle community of Mae Sai into a tourist hotspot.

A few of the boys’ mothers are among the traders at the site who now sell souvenirs commemorating the effort.

A 3m-high bronze statue stands in memory of Saman Gunan, the Thai diver and ex-Navy SEAL who died during the rescue.

The bronze statue of Lt-Commander Samarn Gunan, the former Navy SEAL who died in the dramatic operation to rescue young footballers from Tham Luang cave in July, has been installed in front of the cave.

The memorial to Lt. Com Gunan, was paraded through the streets of Mueang Chiang Rai on Thursday before being installed at Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park at a memorial pavilion that had been set up earlier this year.

By Amanda Hodge