After 16 days of efforts to free dozens of Indian construction workers trapped in a Himalayan road tunnel, rescuers were finally preparing to pull the men out Tuesday as diggers struggled to free a last strip of debris, authorities said.
The rescue operation ran into repeated roadblocks, with officials ultimately trying multiple ways to reach the 41 stranded men. But a breakthrough came Tuesday afternoon, as trained miners using hand tools made rapid progress after reclaiming the spot where a drilling machine had broken down.
“The work of installing the pipe to rescue the workers has been completed,” Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of the northern state of Uttarakhand, where the tunnel is located, said in a brief statement. on social networks. “Soon all working brothers will be eliminated.”
Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority, gave a less definitive assessment and said about two meters of drilling remained.
Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, he said at 4 p.m. local time, about two hours after the chief minister’s statement, that “we are close to a breakthrough, but not there yet.” Rescuers had moved close enough that workers trapped inside could hear preparations for their rescue, Mr. Hasnain said.
“In less than 24 hours we managed to dig 10 meters manually, which I would say was phenomenal,” he said. “There are 41 inside. Outside there are many more – the safety of those outside is as important as those inside, so we are in no hurry.
Once the rescue begins, he added, it will take about three to four hours to get all the workers out through the inserted pipe, with the process taking about three to five minutes for each.
The workers’ ordeal, followed closely in India by regular news on television channels and social media, has highlighted concerns long raised by environmental experts over large-scale construction in the fragile mountain range. of the Himalayas.
The men were building a tunnel that is part of a major road project on a Hindu pilgrimage route when a landslide on November 12 trapped them behind about 60 meters of debris.
Early Tuesday afternoon, as authorities reported that drilling had reached the final meters separating rescuers from trapped workers, images from outside the tunnel showed a flurry of activity. Dozens of emergency workers in orange jumpsuits carried ropes and ladders, parked ambulances headed toward the tunnel and prayers continued to be offered at a small makeshift roadside temple in the distance.
Family members of stranded workers were asked to be ready, as a relative would accompany each worker to the hospital.
“I will accompany Sanjay when he comes out. I feel at peace right now. We feel energized and happy to hear that the ordeal will soon be over,” Jyotish Basumatary, the brother of Sanjay Basumatary, one of the trapped men, said by phone from outside the tunnel.
During the two weeks of operation, officials’ previous estimates that rescuers would soon reach the workers proved wrong, after the drilling encountered setbacks.
In the hours following the November 12 landslide, authorities were able to establish communication and confirm that workers were safe. But initial drilling efforts were hampered by additional falling debris.
A small pipe leading into the tunnel was used to bring them food, water and oxygen. About a week into their saga, an endoscopy camera sent through the pipe brought out the workers’ first visuals, easing their families’ concerns.
On the 13th day, rescue efforts appeared disorganized when an American-made auger failed less than 20 meters from the drill’s arrival. As they attempted to break the auger and free it, authorities launched contingency plans, including one in which workers began drilling vertically from the mountaintop.
New machines arrived by plane from different parts of the country. But in the end, the rescue efforts – aided by international tunneling experts – managed to manually drill “rat-hole miners” into the final stretch of the path that had been largely cleared by the auger.
In India, rathole mining is a term for a method by which workers dig very small tunnels to reach coal.
Mr Basumatary said he had spoken to his brother eight or nine times since he was stuck. “The last time I spoke to him was last night. He said, “We are fine. We receive food and clothing, mustard oil, chapatis, vegetables, lentils, rice and biscuits, apples and oranges.
Mr. Basumatary said the workers went hungry on the first day, but basic food items – rice flakes, cashew nuts and raisins – reached them on the second day. Adequate food, including hot meals, began reaching them about a week later, he said.
Most of the workers stuck in the tunnel came from India’s poorer states, such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam, regions with high levels of migration for work. Family members said they worked for a salary of about $250 a month.
“I feel very good. Today, my heart is as big as the mountain”, father of a worker. told television reporters outside the tunnel, nodding towards the mountain that had trapped his son.
The man who gave his his name is Chaudhary to reporters, said the government helped him find accommodation while he waited for his son near the tunnel and provided him with the clothes he was wearing. The man had a backpack and a television reporter asked him what he was carrying for his son, whom he would accompany to the hospital.
“Nothing. We have nothing, so what can I take for him?” the man said with a smile, as he opened the bag to show some clothes. “The clothes I am wearing were also given to me given.”
“I will tell him: ‘Son, I am very happy today. The whole country, even the trees and plants, are happy,” he said.