Hopes revive as Indian rescuers likely to reach 41 trapped in tunnel ‘soon’
Ambulances were being kept ready near the tunnel’s entrance, preparing to receive the workers inside.
Security personnel and others at the under-construction tunnel that collapsed, trapping several workers inside, in Uttarkashi district of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, on Saturday, November 18, 2023. (PTI Photo)
INDIAN rescue teams digging by hand are on the verge of breaking through to reach 41 men trapped in a collapsed road tunnel, officials said Tuesday, raising hopes the end of the marathon 17-day operation is in sight.
An AFP reporter at the site saw ambulances move towards the mouth of the tunnel entrance, preparing to receive the men who have been trapped since a portion of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand collapsed.
Rescue teams have stretchers specially fitted with wheels, ready to pull the exhausted men out through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe — once it is driven through the final section of the tonnes of earth, concrete and rubble blocking their escape.
After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners are working by hand in a painstaking dig using a so-called “rat-hole” technique.
Mahmood Ahmad, a senior road and highways ministry official at the site, said diggers were just two metres of rubble away from the men.
“We have drilled 55.3 metres by manual excavation… let’s hope to get some good news by late evening,” Ahmad told reporters.
Pushkar Singh Dhami, chief minister of Uttarakhand state, said the operation was “expected to be completed soon”, without giving a specific timeframe.
Previous hopes of reaching the men have been dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines, and the government has warned that timelines are subject to “technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.
The 41 construction workers have been trapped since November 12 in a tunnel being constructed between the remote towns of Silkyara and Dandalgaon in Uttarakhand state.
Dhami said the health of the workers was “fine”, but that a team of medics in a field hospital were ready on site as soon as they were brought out.
– ‘Playing cricket’ –
Rajput Rai, a drilling expert, told the Press Trust of India that three-person teams were taking turns working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.
While one worker drills, a second scoops up the rubble by hand, and the third places it on a wheeled trolley to be pulled out, Rai said, according to PTI.
Rescuers have brought in a superheated plasma cutter to slice through metal rods that have repeatedly impeded progress.
Last week, engineers working to drive a metal pipe horizontally through the 57 metres of rock and concrete ran into metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the rubble, snapping a giant earth-boring machine.
A separate vertical shaft is also being dug from the forested hill above the tunnel, reaching more than halfway through the 89 metres needed to reach the stranded men, a risky route in an area that has already suffered a collapse.
Digging, blasting and drilling have also begun from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be around 480 metres.
Work on those two routes was paused on Tuesday as rescuers concentrated efforts on the main horizontal tunnel.
The workers were seen alive for the first time last week, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity are being delivered.
Though trapped, the workers have plenty of space in the tunnel, with the area inside 8.5 metres high and stretching about two kilometres in length.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is advising the rescue on site, told reporters that drilling was “coming along very well”.
He said the trapped men were in good spirits, and that he had heard “they are playing cricket”.