Rescue of 41 workers from collapsed tunnel in India face new delay

24 November 2023, 17:34

India Tunnel Collapse
India Tunnel Collapse. Picture: PA

The rescue operation in Uttarakhand state has stretched into a 13th day.

Rescue teams trying to reach 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India for nearly two weeks have stopped drilling again after a boring machine hit a new metal obstruction in rock debris.

Devendra Patwal, a disaster management officer, said it could take the rescuers several hours to cut the metal object and resume the final phase of digging at the accident site in Uttarakhand state.

He said the machine was stopped after it had drilled about 6.5ft of the last stretch of 40ft of rock debris that would open a passage for the trapped workers to come out.

India Tunnel Collapse
Rescuers rest at the site of the tunnel collapse (AP)

On Thursday, the platform of the machine became unstable while boring and halted the digging, said Kirti Panwar, a Uttarakhand state government spokesman. It resumed drilling on Friday evening.

He could not say how long it would take to complete the drilling and to bring the construction workers out. They have been trapped since November 12 when a landslide caused a section of the 2.8-mile tunnel to collapse about 650ft from the entrance.

As the rescue operation stretched into the 13th day, teams had drilled through 151ft and needed to excavate up to 40ft more to create a passageway, Mr Panwar said.

Before the work resumed on Friday, rescuers manually dug through debris to remove pieces of metal and prevent further damage, he said.

The rescue teams are also inserting pipes into the dug-out channel and welding them together to serve as a passageway. About 151ft of pipe has been put in so far.

India Tunnel Collapse
Screengrab from footage showing one of the trapped workers (Uttarakhand State Disaster Response Force/AP)

Members of the National Disaster Response Force plan to bring the workers out one by one on stretchers fitted with wheels.

The mountainous terrain in the area has proven to be a challenge for the drilling machine, which broke down last weekend as rescue teams attempted to dig horizontally towards the trapped workers. The machine’s high-intensity vibrations also caused more debris to fall.

The drilling had to stop again on Wednesday after the boring machine hit a metal girder, causing damage to its blades.

Authorities have supplied the trapped workers with hot meals through a 6in pipe after days of just dry food sent through a narrower pipe. Oxygen is being supplied through a separate pipe.

Most of the trapped workers are migrant laborers from across the country. Many of their families have travelled to the accident site, where they have camped out for days.

India Tunnel Collapse
Haridwar Sharma waits for news of his brother Sushil (AP)

“We are all waiting here, hoping they come out,” said Haridwar Sharma, whose brother Sushil is among the workers. “It is not in our hands… the administration is at it, the machinery is there. With God’s blessing, we are hopeful.”

Officials earlier released a video from a camera pushed through the pipe that showed the workers in their construction hats moving around the blocked tunnel while communicating with rescuers on walkie-talkies.

The tunnel the workers were building was designed as part of the Chardham all-weather road, which will connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites.

Some experts say the project, a flagship initiative of the federal government, will exacerbate fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built on landslide debris.

Large numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit Uttarakhand’s many Hindu temples, with the number increasing over the years due to the continued construction of buildings and roads.

By Press Association

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