Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Operation resumes with new drill to rescue 40 workers

The drill being used broke when the rescue pipe hit a boulder

A lorry loaded with augers prepares to enter the tunnel in Uttarkashi, where 40 road workers are trapped after a partial collapse. Reuters
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Emergency workers resumed efforts on Thursday to rescue at least 40 workers trapped for more than 96 hours in a collapsed tunnel in India’s Uttarakhand state, a day after a drill machine used to dig through the debris broke down.

Authorities flew in US-made “horizontal dry drilling equipment with auger” on Wednesday from the capital New Delhi.

“The machine was airlifted yesterday, and we have started the work this morning," Girdhari Lal Nath, a senior administrator of Uttarkashi district, told The National. "We are hopeful we will succeed in drilling and inserting a pipe. We can’t say how long it will take.”

The 4.5km tunnel is being built between Silkyara and Dandalgaon, to connect two Hindu shrines, in Uttarkashi and Yamunotri districts.

Authorities are trying to create a passage by inserting a 900mm steel pipe for the workers to crawl through.

Nearly 50m of debris needs to be penetrated to insert the pipes.

The machine that was being used to drill through the rubble broke down after the pipe on its way in hit a boulder.

Rescue authorities are also monitoring the mental health of the trapped workers through constant communication, Mr Nath said.

“We are communicating with them every half an hour,” he said. "They are being provided with food, water, oxygen and medicines."

The accident took place early on Sunday morning when a group of workers was heading out of the tunnel and others about to start their shift were going in.

Initial reports said the collapse was caused by a landslide, but an investigation is under way.

Drilling experts said that the previous machine was not powerful enough to drill through the rubble.

“The rubble has fallen six times ... and its span has increased to 70 metres. My machine can only work up to 45 metres, that's why the government arranged a big machine with a capacity of around 70 metres,” said Adesh Jain, the engineer supervising the drilling.

“Human lives will be saved by 101 per cent. I believe that by tomorrow evening or night, everybody will be rescued safely from the tunnel,” he added.

Families and colleagues are anxious with the rescue work continuing for five days without any success.

They clashed with the authorities and rescue workers on Wednesday, accusing them of being lax.

The tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham project to improve connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage sites in the state.

Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand is known for its natural beauty and houses dozens of major Hindu temples. It is a popular tourist destination.

However, the ecologically sensitive region is facing 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, causing a flash flood at a hydropower project construction site that killed more than 200.

Updated: November 28, 2023, 11:12 AM