Former Thai Navy SEAL Dies Trying to Rescue Soccer Team Trapped in Cave

A former Thai Navy SEAL has died in the effort to rescue 12 boys and their adult soccer coach trapped in a cave in northern Thailand Friday, authorities said. Petty Officer 2nd Class Saman Kunan, 38, had successfully delivered oxygen tanks deep inside the tunnels when he was found unconscious in the water early Friday.

Saman-Kunan
(Photo: Facebook / Saman Kunan)

Kunan had completed the delivery of oxygen tanks between the cave's "chamber 3," a large cavern where the Thai Navy established a command center, and the flooded tunnels leading to the trapped boys about 1,700 meters away. He had been placing oxygen tanks along a potential escape route for the boys, reports The Independent.

The former elite diver was found by another diver who attempted to give him CPR. Kunan, who was working as a volunteer, died around 1 a.m. local time from lack of oxygen.

Speaking at a news conference Friday morning, the Thai Navy SEAL commander in charge of the rescue effort named Kunan.

"A former SEAL who volunteered to help died last night around 2 a.m.," Chiang Rai's deputy governor, Passakorn Boonyaluck, told reporters at the rescue site. "His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back."

Kunan graduated as a special forces officer and later resigned from the Navy SEALS but had volunteered for the rescue mission after the reports of the missing team were at the forefront of national news for almost two weeks.

"The conditions in the cave are tough," said Thai SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew. "Once he placed the oxygen tanks he became unconscious on his way back. His buddy tried to administer first aid, when there was no response he tried to move him. We won't let his life be in vain. We will carry on".

Officials also raised concerns Friday that oxygen levels in the cave are running low as a result of so many people working in them to supply the boys and prepare for their rescue. Efforts to save the boys have turned international as the rescue team faces a race against time to free them before a new rainstorm arrives. Forces from the U.S. and Australia have arrived to support Thai authorities, as well as technical experts from the U.K., China, Japan and elsewhere.

"We can no longer wait for all conditions (to be ready) because circumstances are pressuring us," Yookongkaew told a news conference. "We originally thought the boys can stay safe inside the cave for quite some time, but circumstances have changed. We have limited amount of time."

The boys, aged 11 to 16, have been trapped for almost 13 days since they went to explore the caves after a soccer game on June 23. They were discovered by two British volunteer divers Monday night, but authorities are still trying to establish the safest way to get them out of the flooded cave network.

Thailand's monsoon season does not end until around October, meaning more water could fill the chamber where the boys are trapped, meaning the safest option — to wait until the caves dry out naturally — is impossible.

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Along the route the British volunteer divers used to find the boys, the journey takes experienced divers about five hours. The boys themselves have no previous experience using diving equipment and some reportedly cannot even swim.

TIME reports that the difficult dive requires careful navigation in pitch-black, muddy waters through stalactites and around sharp corners. Some passageways are reportedly so narrow that divers had to remove some equipment to get through them, while some have been widened to ease the passage.