Emergency teams are forcing steel pipes through rock using powerful hydraulic equipment in a desperate attempt to pull out more than 40 workers who have been trapped inside a collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi in the Indian state of Uttarakhand since Sunday.
After attempts to cut through fallen rocks failed, the focus is now on trying to squeeze the pipes through heaps of debris to pull out the workers who were stranded after part of the Silkyara tunnel in the town collapsed on Sunday morning.
A steel pipe will be pushed through an opening of excavated debris with the aid of hydraulic jacks, authorities said on Tuesday.
The accident took place when a group of workers was heading out and others about to start their shift were going in. Initial reports said the incident was triggered by a landslide but an investigation into the cause is under way.
Devendra Patwal, Uttarkashi disaster management officer, told The National: “We have arranged two pipes and are trying to insert them. This is going to be challenging as we are expecting boulders to be stuck inside.”
Mr Patwal said a platform was being prepared for an auger machine – a spiral-shaped tool – to drill horizontally to insert the pipes.
The entire process could take more than 48 hours, he added.
“Time is running out but the workers are safe and unharmed. They are being provided food and oxygen,” he said.
“We have other plans if this doesn’t work. We are also digging a parallel tunnel. We are trying every possible way to rescue these people."
The decision to use hydraulic pipes was taken after rescuers who were trying to create an escape passage made no further progress after covering 20 metres due to slabs blocking the way and debris that continued to fall, hampering the work, Arpan Yaduvanshi, police chief in the town in Uttarakhand state, told The National.
Authorities had established communication with the workers late on Sunday using radio handsets and said they were all alive and were being provided oxygen through tubes.
The 4.5-kilometre tunnel is being built between Silkyara and Dandalgaon to connect two of the holiest Hindu shrines of Uttarkashi and Yamunotri.
It is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham project, to improve connectivity of four Hindu pilgrimage sites in the state.
Uttarakhand is known for its natural beauty and houses dozens of major Hindu temples. It is a popular tourist destination but also an ecologically sensitive region that has been bearing the brunt of climate change and rampant construction.
The state was hit by floods in 2013 that devastated Kedarnath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines, killing more than 5,700 people. A glacial lake burst in 2021, triggering a flash flood at a hydropower project construction site that killed more than 200.
About 50 people were killed this summer after unprecedented heavy rain caused flash flooding and landslides.