Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse: New Machines renew hopes of rescue

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Fresh efforts begin to rescue 40 workers trapped in tunnel for fifth Day

The giant pipes that will be inserted into the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand. Photo: ANI Photo

NEW DELHI: The combined teams of rescue workers renewed their efforts on Thursday morning to reach and connect with 40 construction workers trapped inside the tunnel that collapsed on Char-Dham Highway in Uttarakhand for the fifth day despite the fact that the progress was slow as they started drilling through rock and soil debris.

The rescue teams engaged in the process were now confident that the new drilling machine that was flown in a special plane from New Delhi to the rescue site will help them in speeding up the rescue efforts.

The rescue plan includes drilling and carve out space for a pipe that can be used by the trapped workers to crawl to safety.

The 4.5 km tunnel is part of the Char-Dham Highway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The $1.5 billion project aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sacred sites through 890 kms of roads.

The local authorities have not said what could be the reason for the tunnel to collapse but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods. The cause of the tunnel collapse can be ascertained only after a thorough inquiry is conducted by experts.

The new and advance drilling machines had penetrated about 40 ft of debris by Thursday evening, officials said, adding that they had to cover a total distance of about 60 metres to reach the trapped construction workers.

The advanced machine can drill through about 6.5-8.00 feet of rock per hour and had faced “obstructions in the form of boulders or rods and small cement blocks”, they said. This has raised hopes for the rescue of the trapped workers.

A disaster management officer on the site said that the major challenge is to keep the alignment straight and that is the reason it is taking a long time. The process will have to started afresh if the alignment changes, he added.

Officials said in the evening that a six-metre section of a steel pipe had been inserted into the bored passage through the soil and debris. Another section was being welded into this pipe.

The plan is to insert 800 mm and 900 mm diameter pipes — one after the other — with the help of the giant drill till an escape passage is created for the workers stranded beyond the collapsed portion of the under-construction tunnel.

After a smaller drilling machine failed to do the job, IAF’s C-130 Hercules planes brought the US-made auger machine, in parts, from Delhi to an airport 30 kilometres away on Wednesday evening. The 25-tonne piece of equipment was installed overnight.

Union Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways V K Singh, who visited the rescue site, set “two or three days” as the “outer limit” for the new machine to get the job done, an official report said.

But Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who said on Thursday that all tunnel projects in the state will now be reviewed, appeared more optimistic.

“I have been told that the new drilling machine has already penetrated five to seven metres through the debris,” Dhami told reporters earlier in the day in Dehradun. “We hope it would soon reach the trapped workers, drilling at the rate of five to 10 metres every hour.”

At first, when the 30-40 metre portion of the tunnel collapsed on Sunday morning, rescue workers had tried excavating the rubble using an earth moving machine.

The stretch with the debris begins 270 metres from the mouth of the tunnel at its Silkyara side.

The trapped workers are safe, and being supplied with oxygen, medicines, food items and water through pipes, Navayuga Engineering Company’s spokesperson G L Nath said. The company is building the tunnel on behalf of the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).

Union minister Singh talked to the trapped workers. “The people’s morale is high,” he told reporters later, adding that they knew that the government is putting in all efforts to get them out.

He said experts in the country and abroad have been consulted on the rescue operation.

The minister said the site where the tunnel is being constructed has been stable for the past four and a half years.

In Dehradun, Chief Minister Dhami said Prime Minister Narendra Modi is constantly monitoring the situation.

The Uttarakhand government has decided to review all under-construction tunnels in the state, he said.

“We need such tunnels and many of them are being built in the state. We will review wherever they are being constructed,” he added.

A six-bed makeshift health facility has been set up and 10 ambulances with doctors also stationed outside the tunnel to provide immediate medical care to the trapped workers on their evacuation, officials said.

Doctors have advised that the workers would need both physical and mental rehabilitation upon being rescued.

The victims might experience panic attacks because of being trapped in closed spaces for long, said Dr Ajay Agarwal, director, Internal Medicine AT Fortis Hospital in Noida.

Also, falling debris inside the tunnel damaged the first machine and injured two rescue workers on Tuesday.