Rescuers on Tuesday managed to push a pipe through the debris to get out the 41 men trapped since a part of the 4.5km-long Silkyara-Barkot tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi 17 days ago. They can crawl through and begin getting the men anytime, officials said.
A National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team will first go to the other side using the rescue pipeline with equipment such as gas cylinders and lights. If needed, a team of doctors will also be sent for a health check-up of the trapped men to ascertain their vitals. The trapped men would then be briefed about their rescue through the pipeline. They will lie down on wheel-fitted stretchers and be pulled to the other side using a rope. The men will be taken out one by one. The NDRF team will not leave the other side until all men are out.
Jaimal Singh Negi, brother of trapped foreman Gabbar Singh Negi, said at last God heard their prayers. “He would be finally out. The last few days have been challenging for us. With frequent challenges, our hopes were getting dashed.”
Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said, “With the blessings of Baba Baukh Nag and prayers of crores of people of our country and hard work of rescue teams, the pipeline has been pushed through the debris. Soon, the workers will be taken out.”
The workers were trapped behind a 60m thick wall of debris under the tunnel. On Monday, the process of manual drilling for the rescue was initiated. A part of an augur machine stuck inside the evacuation pipes was removed on Monday amid vertical drilling from the top of the mountain.
Forty-one workers were trapped in increasingly desperate conditions since a part of the tunnel collapsed. The augur machine— a corkscrew-like device with a rotary blade at the front —went bust on Friday after getting entangled in an iron girder after drilling 46.8 metres into the debris.
On Monday, welders found that the cutter of the augur was entangled with lattice girder bars, which damaged 1.5m of the 800 mm-wide passage pipe. On Monday around 7pm, “rat miners” took up the job and cleared the 12 metres of debris within 24 hours.
Rat-hole mining is a primitive method of extracting coal deposits through narrow and horizontal passages in Meghalaya. The term “rat hole” refers to the narrow pits dug into the ground, typically just large enough for one person to descend into and extract coal. The name comes from its resemblance to rats burrowing through narrow holes. A team of six rat-hole miners was called in from Madhya Pradesh for the operation.
The augur machine broke down just about 10-12 metres from the breakthrough point on November 24 and stalled the progress of the operation even as officials hoped to bring the workers out that day.
Once it became clear that the augur machine was irreparable, officials started drilling down 86 metres to reach the tunnel. On Monday, the machine hit a water aquifer, which slowed down the rescue effort.
Rescuers said the process of pulling out the workers would take a couple of hours. Rescuers with ropes and ladders waited outside the tunnel as ambulances began arriving to take the trapped men to a hospital around 30 km away.