14 metres to freedom: Final push to free Indian tunnel workers

Published November 24, 2023
Media personnel and onlookers gather near the entrance of a tunnel under construction where workers are trapped following a collapse, in Uttarkashi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 24, 2023. — Reuters
Media personnel and onlookers gather near the entrance of a tunnel under construction where workers are trapped following a collapse, in Uttarkashi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 24, 2023. — Reuters

Just a few metres of rock and earth separate Indian rescue teams from 41 workers who have been trapped inside a collapsed road tunnel for nearly two weeks, officials said on Friday, adding that they were optimistic of success within hours.

After a series of rapid advances, hopes that the men’s freedom was imminent were dashed late on Wednesday when the drilling machine powering through tonnes of rock and concrete ran into metal rods, but those have now been cleared.

Rescue teams have stretchers fitted with wheels ready to pull the exhausted men through 57 metres of steel pipe once it has been driven through the final section of rubble blocking their escape.

“We have to [drill] 14 metres further inside the tunnel,” Bhaskar Khulbe, a senior government official overseeing rescue efforts, told reporters on Friday.

“If everything goes well, we hope to reach them by today evening,” he said, adding that the “trapped workers are in good frame of mind”.

But a government statement has also noted that any timeline is “subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.

Ambulances are on standby and a field hospital has been prepared to receive the men, who have been trapped since a portion of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand caved in 13 days ago.

‘Geology is the enemy’

The area outside the tunnel has been a flurry of activity, with worried relatives gathering and rescue teams stopping to pray at a Hindu shrine erected at the entrance.

National Disaster Response Force chief Atul Karwal said his teams have been rehearsing how — once the steel pipe breaks through — they will bring the men out as quickly and safely as possible.

“The boys will go in first,” he said yesterday. “We have put wheels under the stretchers so that when we go in, we can get the people out one by one on the stretcher — we are prepared in every way.”

Rescue efforts have been hit with repeated delays caused by falling debris, fears of further cave-ins and drilling machine breakdowns.

Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is at the site assisting the rescue, said engineers had even faced having to cut through construction vehicles buried in the earth when the roof first collapsed.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said work was on a “war footing”.

“We are trying to overcome all the obstacles soon, and bring all the workers out safely,” Dhami said on Friday.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a senior rescue official and retired general, said their efforts were “like battle”.

“Here, the land is your enemy,” he said. “Himalayan geology is the enemy… it is very challenging work.”

Experts have warned of the impact of extensive construction in Uttarakhand, large parts of which are prone to landslides.

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