Less than 20 metres of rock and debris separate 41 workers trapped in the collapsed tunnel in Uttarakhand’s Silkyara and emergency services officials racing to rescue them, and “big news” is expected in the next 24 hours, state officials told reporters Wednesday morning.
Mahmood Ahmed, a senior official with Uttarakhand’s Road and Transport Department, said the auger (or earth drilling machine) that was switched on at 12.45 am has drilled 18 metres so far.
“I am very happy to share that drilling for 39 metres has been completed. Estimates indicate the workers are trapped 57 metres underground, so only 18 metres is left,” he explained.
Mr Ahmed also said the most time-consuming process – in a rescue attempt that is now in its 11th day – is the welding of pipes to be pushed into the drilled holes to provide workers’ an escape route.
“Welding is most important… this takes time. It does not take much time to drill… due to this it has taken almost 15 hours, from late night, to send 18 metres of pipes, i.e., three sections,” he added.
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“An additional 800mm pipe has also been pushed 21 metres inside the tunnel.”
“If there are no obstacles, some big news may be received tonight or tomorrow morning. An iron rod has also come with the debris. We are happy this (rod) did not create any problems for us…”
“This is very happy news for us, that we are moving forward at a fast pace,” he added. However, Mr Ahmed also issued a word of warning – that the remaining section is the most critical.
Rescue efforts have been slow, complicated by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of heavy-drilling machines. One machine last week ran into boulders, causing drilling to be suspended for over three days after the tunnel’s roof seemed to crack.
Both the state and the central governments have promised to do all they can to bring the 41 workers back up safely, but they have refused to give a definitive timeline for their rescue, noting these are “subject to change due to technical glitches, challenging terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.
Officials have said the workers could be rescued any time between 60 hours and 15 days.
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Five government agencies, including the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation – have been roped in to this massive effort, and given specific goals, including drilling vertically for an alternative escae route.
In case the route through the main entrance does not work, blasting and drilling have also begun from the far end of the unfinished tunnel, which is nearly half a kilometre long.
Preparations have also been made for a risky vertical shaft directly above.
Rescuers have already drilled smaller holes to reach the tunnel in which the workers have been trapped since November 12, and have used these to supply them with food, water and medicines.
One of these holes was used to insert a smaller pipe and then to push an endoscopy camera nearly 60 metres down to capture the first images of the trapped workers. The blurry images showed over a dozen men, wearing white and yellow hardhats, standing in a large cavernous area.
Last night the trapped workers received their first solid food in over a week, after rescuers packed items like vegetable pulao, and slipped it down the smaller pipes, which are about six inches wide.
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Till last night workers had received snack items and fruits, like oranges and bananas.
Abhishek Ramola, the owner of the hotel that cooked and packed the food, told news agency ANI around 150 packets had been prepared for dinner on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the government said there is sufficient water and oxygen available to the trapped workers, even if the rescue attempt were to drag into a second week. The workers also have electricity since, fortunately, power lines to construction sites underground remained operational after the collapse.
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Some family members have also been brought to the rescue site to ensure those trapped remain in good cheer. “Families have been accommodated in hotels…in one or two cases, they were even able to talk through it… the more the families talk to them, the better morale will be,” an official said.
With input from agencies
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