As many as 40 Indian workers are expected to spend a third night trapped inside a collapsed Himalayan highway tunnel after officials said it could take another 24 hours to reach them.
Rescue teams are racing to cut through around 40 metres of fallen rocks and debris with heavy machinery, but have given up trying to create an access route through which the workers can walk out.
With around 19 metres to go, they are now drilling a narrower hole through which they can pass a steel pipe measuring 2ft 6in (0.76m) in diameter. If they are successful, the workers will be able to crawl out through the pipe.
The workers are stranded about 200 metres into a large under-construction section of the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi, and have a vast cavern almost 2km long in which to walk around. No one was harmed when a large section of the tunnel caved in at around 5am local time on Sunday.
A team of about 200 rescuers have been able to supply oxygen to the workers using compression pipelines, after earlier establishing lines of communication. Food and water are now also being supplied through pipelines laid earlier to assist with the construction work.
The Uttarakhand state government’s disaster management secretary, Ranjit Sinha, said they had expected to complete the evacuation of the workers by late on Tuesday night but falling debris had complicated the rescue operation.
He said all the workers were alive and that they had sufficient supplies of water and dry food.
“There is enough water while oxygen and food for instant energy like dry fruits are being supplied to them,” said Devendra Singh Patwal, a disaster management official.
Pictures from the site on Tuesday morning showed trucks loading the steel pipe into the tunnel and a platform being prepared for an auger machine – used for horizontal drilling – to create the rescue passage.
Videos also showed huge piles of concrete blocking the tunnel with twisted metal bars from its caved roof buried under the rubble, making it dangerous both for rescue teams and the trapped workers.
#WATCH | Uttarkashi tunnel accident: Trucks loaded with 900 mm diameter pipes reach Silkyara. A platform is being prepared for the auger machine for horizontal drilling to rescue the trapped labourers by inserting large diameter MS pipes in the part of the Silkyara tunnel blocked… pic.twitter.com/KcGcVB2z55
— ANI UP/Uttarakhand (@ANINewsUP) November 14, 2023
VIDEO | Rescue operations continue in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand where a portion of the tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway collapsed on Sunday morning, trapping 40 workers.#UttarakhandTunnelCollapse pic.twitter.com/pTdIzjhKWj
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) November 14, 2023
The Silkyara tunnel, which is 13 metres wide (43ft) and 15 metres (50ft) in height, was being built on a national highway and is part of prime minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious highway project to improve connectivity for a key Hindu pilgrimage route in Uttarakhand, a mountainous state dotted with some of the holiest sites in Hinduism.
“The relief forces are removing the debris and soon we will have all the labourers out,” state police chief Ashok Kumar earlier said.
First contact with the trapped workers was made through a note on a piece of paper but later a connection was secured using radio handsets.
Mr Kumar said the exact cause of the cave-in was not yet known.
Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who inspected the site on Tuesday, said he was closely monitoring the situation.
“I had visited the spot, and I also spoke to the family members of the people who are trapped inside ... food, water and oxygen being supplied to the people who’re trapped inside. PM Modi is also closely monitoring the situation,” he said.
The anxious families of the trapped workers have been following the rescue closely.
The son of Gabbar Singh Negi, one of the labourers trapped inside the tunnel, spoke to his father through the pipe through which food is being supplied.
“I was allowed to speak to my father for a few seconds using the pipe through which oxygen is being supplied to the stranded workers,” Akash Singh Negi told PTI.
“He said they were safe. He asked us not to worry as the company is with them,” he said about the short conversation.
Rajeev Das, a migrant worker from West Bengal, told the Indian Express that he had ended his night shift and left the tunnel just minutes before he heard screams, and rushed towards the tunnel entrance to see what happened.
“Initially, we thought it might be a minor collapse, and began removing the debris however we could. But soon, we realised it was a challenging search and rescue [mission],” Mr Das said.
“The thought that it could have been me does not leave my mind,” he added.
Mr Das said that some workers were apprehensive about the strength of the structure and they had a feeling that the structure was “not very strong”.
“Just a day before, when we were removing a lattice girder, we saw some debris falling. On Saturday night, a piece of concrete fell from the roof. We informed our seniors. But before they could do anything, the incident happened,” he added.
The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) is the agency engaged in building the tunnel.
“The situation is better now. The workers are safe. We are providing food and water. There are nearly 40 people inside. We are trying our best,” Anshu Manish Khalkho, the director of NHIDCL was quoted by Mint.
The Uttarakhand government has constituted a six-member expert committee to investigate the tunnel collapse.
Describing the state of workers, Shashi Chauhan, a mechanical foreman at the site said they were in panic soon after the collapse but felt more relaxed after communication was established.
The work on the tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham pilgrimage route, began in 2018 but was running late, as it was intended to be completed by July 2022.
Some of the work of the project was briefly halted by local authorities after hundreds of houses were damaged by subsidence along the pilgrimage route, including in Uttarakhand.