Navy Seal Diver Dies During Rescue of Boys Soccer Team Trapped in Thai Cave

A Thai volunteer diver has died during efforts to rescue the youth soccer team trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand since June 23.

Petty Officer First Class Saman Kunan, 38, formerly of the Thai Navy's Underwater Demolition Assault Unit (nicknamed "Seals" due to their historic connection with U.S. Navy SEALs), is the first casualty associated with the rescue, and demonstrates the perilous conditions that emergency teams are facing.

Kunan lost consciousness while delivering air tanks and could not be revived. Officials have said that Kunan's funeral would be sponsored by the Thai king.

Thai Navy diver Saman Kunan lost his life while helping in rescue operations for the Thai youth soccer team trapped in a submerged cave. Photo circa August 2016. Saman Kunan/Facebook

Kunan had volunteered to assist rescue teams in bringing supplies to the 12 trapped boys—aged from 11 to 16—and their 25-year-old coach, the BBC reported. Thai authorities are preparing to extract the stranded team from the cave in Chiang Rai in the north of the country while battling to reduce water levels.

"His job was to deliver oxygen. He did not have enough on his way back," explained Chiang Rai Deputy Governor Passakorn Bunyalak. Though his dive partner brought Kunan out of the tunnels, he could not be saved.

The sad incident illustrates just how treacherous the conditions in the flooded cave complex are. Even for experienced elite divers like Kunan, the small spaces and low visibility can be deadly.

"Inside the cave is tough," said Thai Naval Special Warfare Command's Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yookongkaew. "On the way back from setting up oxygen bottles, Petty Officer First Class Kunan passed out.

"His buddy tried to give him first aid, but he did not respond. We brought him to chamber three and gave him another round of first aid, but he remained unconscious. So we took him to the hospital."

Soldiers and rescue workers work in Tham Luang cave complex as the rescue of a youth soccer team and their coach continues in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, on July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Read More…Video: Meet the Thai Soccer Players Trapped in a Cave

Yookongkaew vowed that Kunan's fellow rescuers would not be deterred by his death. "I can guarantee that we will not panic, we will not stop our mission, we will not let the sacrifice of our friend go to waste," he told reporters.

Yookongkaew noted rescuers would take extra precautions with the children if forced to swim them out, and officials have already suggested the boys might be taken out in stages.

Around 1,000 people are on site to assist the rescue effort, including specialists from seven countries including the U.S. Since their discovery by two British divers on Monday, divers, doctors and nurses have stayed in the chamber with the boys. All are reportedly in good health and are being regularly supplied with food and water.

However, the increased number of people in the cave is depleting oxygen levels, prompting engineers to run a three mile long pipe into the cave to supply extra air. A normal oxygen level sits at around 21 percent of air composition, but in the cave it is roughly 15 percent, the Guardian reported.

Boys from the under-16 soccer team trapped inside Tham Luang cave greet members of the rescue team in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this still image taken from a July 3, 2018 video by Thai Navy SEALs. Thai Navy SEAL via REUTERS

The soccer team is stranded around 2.5 miles from the cave entrance. Engineers are continuously pumping water from the complex. As it is only the start of the rainy season, water levels could rise further and flood the entire chamber where the boys have taken refuge.

Authorities initially suggested the team could stay in the cave until the end of the rainy season in September or October. However, with the threat of further rains and the water entering the cave from sinkholes and streams above, rescuers are increasingly anxious. "At first, we thought the children could stay for a long time… but now things have changed, we have a limited time," Yookongkaew said.

Emergency workers are teaching the team how to dive in case they have to swim out, but Kunan's death shows how dangerous this could be. The tunnels are so narrow at some points that divers cannot fit through with oxygen tanks on their backs and the journey from the boys' chamber to the entrance can take up to five hours for even experienced divers.

Ruangrit Chankuanyuen, a local diver assisting the rescue, told NBC News that the boys only need to know enough to survive the evacuation. "We just need to train them to know how to use the equipment and how to breathe from the scuba equipment, either using the full face mask or using the regulator, so they don't need to be a fully certified scuba diver."

Chankuanyuen suggested that waiting for water levels to fall was increasingly risky. "I truly don't think that is a viable option but it's the worst case scenario," he said.