Digging to rescue 41 workers trapped in tunnel in India hit by mechanical issue

23 November 2023, 17:04

India Tunnel Collapse
India Tunnel Collapse. Picture: PA

The platform of the drilling machine became destabilised while piercing through rock debris.

The rescue of 41 construction workers who have been trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India for nearly two weeks has run into another delay during what was described as the final phase of digging to reach them, officials said.

The platform of the drilling machine became destabilised while piercing through rock debris, and technicians need to fix it before the rescue operation can resume, said Kirti Panwar, a spokesperson for the Uttarakhand state government.

Officials had earlier hoped to be ready to start bringing the workers out on Thursday, but now that will not happen until Friday at the earliest.

India Tunnel Collapse
The scene of the collapse in Silkyara (AP)

“We are fixing the machine. It should be ready tomorrow,” the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency quoted Arnold Dix, an international expert, as saying.

“Since the trapped workers on the other side of the rubble are safe and fit, not rushing has enormous value because if we rush in a situation like this, we might create problems we cannot imagine,” he said.

The drilling was also interrupted on Wednesday night when the boring machine hit a metal girder, causing damage to its blades. That caused a six-hour delay as the rescuers cut the metal object and cleared the obstacle, officials said.

The machine started operating during Thursday, said Atul Karwal, chief of the state-run National Disaster Response Force.

The workers have been trapped since November 12 when a landslide caused a portion of the 2.8-mile tunnel they were building to collapse about 650ft from the entrance.

India Tunnel Collapse
The workers have been trapped for nearly two weeks (AP)

Pushkar Singh Dhami, Uttarakhand state’s top elected official, visited the site on Thursday and spoke to some of the workers in the tunnel by walkie-talkie, Mr Karwal said.

By Thursday evening, the drilling had made it through nearly 151ft and needed to excavate up to 40ft more to create a passageway, according to Kirti Panwar, a state government spokesperson at the accident site.

Rescue teams plan to insert and weld together pipes that would be the trapped workers’ route to freedom. Approximately 150ft of pipes have been put in so far, Mr Panwar said.

Members of the National Disaster Response Force “will then crawl inside and bring out the workers one by one, most likely on stretchers which have been fitted with wheels”, he added.

Rescuers resumed drilling horizontally through the entrance of the tunnel on Wednesday after problems with the machine forced them to stop digging last week and consider alternative rescue plans.

India Tunnel Collapse
One of the workers trapped inside the collapsed tunnel (SDRF/AP)

The mountainous terrain in Uttarakhand has proved a challenge to the drilling machine, which broke down as rescuers attempted to dig horizontally towards the trapped workers. The machine’s high-intensity vibrations also caused more debris to fall.

On Wednesday evening, ambulances and a team of 15 doctors were deployed to the accident site, PTI reported.

Relatives who had gathered there told the agency they were finally feeling optimistic after days of anxiety over the rescue and concern for their trapped loved ones.

Authorities began supplying the trapped workers with hot meals through a 6in pipe earlier this week after days of them surviving on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. Oxygen is being supplied through a separate pipe.

By Press Association

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