Diver Dies During Rescue Efforts for Cave-Trapped Thai Boys

The body of Saman Gunan, a former Thai navy SEAL who died during an overnight mission, is carried during a repatriation and religious rites ceremony at Chiang Rai Airport in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand. (Image credit: AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Rescue efforts for a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave complex recently took a tragic turn: A former Thai navy diver died after running out of air while delivering oxygen tanks to the 12 boys and their coach underground.

Retired Petty Officer Saman Gunan (also reported as "Kunan") was delivering air tanks to the stranded boys and their coach, who are in a subterranean chamber with oxygen levels running low, the BBC reported.

To reach the boys, Gunan and other divers had to navigate recently flooded passageways in the Tham Luang cave complex, where the children have already been trapped for close to two weeks. But Gunan ran out of air on the way back to the surface. He was found unresponsive at 1 a.m. local time today (July 6) and was transported to a nearby hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness, according to the Bangkok Post. [The 7 Longest Caves in the World]

Though Gunan had retired from navy service and was currently employed as an airport security officer, he volunteered to help rescue the boys and their coach, and he was one of 28 navy officers on the scene who are trained as specialists on sea, air and land (SEAL), the Bangkok Post reported. Gunan, an experienced diver, was placing oxygen tanks along a proposed exit route for the team, but his oxygen supply ran out as he navigated back to safety, according to The Washington Post.

Even as Gunan's tragic death is mourned, rescue efforts for the trapped boys continue. Early this morning, ITV News in the U.K. tweeted a video of the rescue team in the tunnels, captured by a helmet camera. In the harrowing footage, rescuers progressed slowly in single file through low-ceilinged and flooded passageways where water in some places reached above their shoulders, gripping a lifeline attached to the cave wall overhead.

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Getting the boys out of the flooded cave system will require outfitting them with diving gear, but some of the children trapped in the cave are as young as 11, and none can swim, Live Science previously reported. (For the diving part of the escape, the kids will be assisted by adult divers and won't need to swim in the traditional sense.)

Estimates from officials in Thailand had previously suggested that transporting everyone safely out of the cave complex could mean waiting as long as four months until the rainy season ended, according to the BBC. But with heavy monsoon rains expected on Sunday, waiting may no longer be an option, Rear Adm. Apakorn Yookongkaew, Thailand's navy SEAL commander, told the BBC.

"At first, we thought the children could stay for a long time," Yookongkaew said. "But now things have changed; we have a limited time." 

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.