One dead and nine trapped in tunnel collapse in India's mountainous Jammu region

Three labourers rescued from the rubble and taken to hospital

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Rescuers have found the body of one construction worker, while at least nine labourers are trapped under rubble, after the collapse of a tunnel being dug in India’s northern Jammu region.

The man was identified as a migrant labourer from eastern West Bengal state.

A fresh collapse on Friday halted rescue operations to reach the nine trapped workers.

“We have found one body this afternoon but unfortunately another cave-in higher than last night occurred, suspending the entire operation,” Masrat Ul Islam, deputy commissioner for Ramban district, told The National.

The incident happened late on Thursday night when part of a 100-metre tunnel on the Jammu-Srinagar national motorway in the Ramban area collapsed during an audit.

The body of a worker from the eastern state of West Bengal has been recovered, AP reported. Ramban’s top civil official Mussarat Islam said crews were working to rescue the nine workers who are still missing.

“We hope that we find somebody alive,” Mr Islam said.

Earlier three labourers, including women, had been pulled from the rubble and taken to hospital.

A joint rescue operation by teams of police and the army is under way, with rock-breakers and mountain digging machines being used to remove debris to reach the stranded workers. The collapsed part is about 30 to 40 metres inside the tunnel.

But police said a fresh cave-in occurred at the site on Friday afternoon forcing the authorities to temporarily suspend the operations for the safety of emergency workers.

“We have providential escape for the operators who were on the machines, excavators and hydras. We are not taking any chances and ensuring we move quickly and able to get enough leverage to restart the operations which is going to be challenging,” Mr Islam said.

Visuals from the site showed debris from the collapsed tunnel on the road and a lorry that was used to carry a power generator trapped under it as medical teams waited for those rescued.

“We got the information at 10.25pm about the cave-in in the mouth of the tunnel near Khooni Nalla about 15 kilometres from Ramban. We were able to rescue three people immediately and take them to the hospital ― one was shifted to Jammu because of a fractured bone,” Mr Islam said.

Those trapped are mainly migrant workers from northern and eastern parts of India and at least two are from Nepal, authorities said.

The labourers were working at the tunnel, an alternate about 21 metres from the main tunnel, when it collapsed at about 10pm. It was made operational on Thursday.

Modi government building several tunnels

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been constructing several tunnels in the treacherous mountainous region to connect the Himalayan valley to the rest of India through Jammu.

Every winter, the Kashmir region is blanketed with heavy snow, which blocks the only motorway and cuts off the valley.

The Banihal and Ramban section, where the accident happened, is one of the crucial points because of its precarious topography, which makes it prone to landslides.

Authorities believe the tunnel collapsed because of the loose composition of the mountain earth.

They said the relief operation is challenging because the terrain is tough and the cavity has developed cracks because of the vibration generated from heavy machines, causing “shooting stones” — large pieces of rock that roll down at high speed — to halt the rescue work.

“This is a very difficult stretch and the rescue operation has been going on since midnight,” Mr Masrat-ul-Islam said. “We have very little space to manoeuvre into the trapped area.

“We have to be careful about the shooting stones, which can further hamper the possibility of finding people alive. The rescue operation is ongoing but it is slow because we don’t want to risk the lives of those trapped and those operating machines.”

Updated: May 20, 2022, 1:28 PM