Families of trapped Indian workers urge government to speed up Uttarakhand disaster rescue

Search teams are digging through tonnes of mud and rock to free at least 34 power plant workers

A general view of the place where members of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) conduct a rescue operation, after a part of a glacier broke away, in Tapovan in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, February 10, 2021. Reuters
A general view of the place where members of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) conduct a rescue operation, after a part of a glacier broke away, in Tapovan in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, February 10, 2021. Reuters

For the past 60 hours, Abdul Wajid has been sitting outside an ill-fated tunnel where his two younger brothers are trapped after it was hit by a flash flood, triggered by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand state.

It has been three days and there is no hint of them…we do not know if they are even alive

Abdul Wajid

The tunnel was all but destroyed after a portion of a Himalayan glacier broke off in the mountainous state on Sunday, wreaking havoc in the region as it caused an avalanche and deluge, sending the Dhauliganga river surging through a narrow valley. At least 32 people were killed and more than 171 people are still missing.

Hundreds of homes on the river bank were damaged and a bridge was washed away cutting off roads to 13 villages.

The flood also completely washed away the under-construction Rishi Ganga power plant where at least 40 people were working at the time of the disaster.

At another tunnel that is a part of the Tapovan Hydroelectric Project, at least 34 people including Mr Wajid’s brothers Mohammad Sadiq, 26, and Mohammad Noman, 22, are still trapped 72 hours after the devastation.

Mohammad Sadiq Faiz, 22, and Mohammad Noman Faiz, 20, worked as a welder at the Tapovan tunnel. They were trapped inside after it was hit by a flash flood triggered by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of the Himalayan Uttarakhand state on Sunday. Courtesy Abdul Wajid
Mohammad Sadiq Faiz, 22, and Mohammad Noman Faiz, 20, worked as a welder at the Tapovan tunnel. They were trapped inside after it was hit by a flash flood triggered by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of the Himalayan Uttarakhand state on Sunday. Courtesy Abdul Wajid

Mr Wajid, 30, a teacher at a madrassa – an Islamic religious school – said he rushed to the site after watching the hair-raising visuals of the disaster on his mobile phone. Video quickly circulated of a torrent of icy water barreling through a gorge and destroying everything in its path.

Mr Wajid had spoken to his brothers only hours before the flood and they informed him that the work was almost done and they would leave for home in the evening.

Mohammad Sadiq Faiz, 22, had been working inside the tunnel as a welder with his younger brother Mohammad Noman Faiz when Tapovan tunnel was destroyed by a flash flood triggered by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of the Himalayan Uttarakhand state. The brothers are still feared trapped. Courtesy Abdul Wajid
Mohammad Sadiq Faiz, 22, had been working inside the tunnel as a welder with his younger brother Mohammad Noman Faiz when Tapovan tunnel was destroyed by a flash flood triggered by a glacier burst in the upper reaches of the Himalayan Uttarakhand state. The brothers are still feared trapped. Courtesy Abdul Wajid

He said his brothers had travelled to the tunnel site for two days of work.

“It has been three days and there is no hint of them…we do not know if they are even alive! My hopes are fading,” Mr Wajid told The National.

For Deepak Verma, the three days since the disaster have been emotionally shattering. His brother Devendra Verma, 22, a daily wage worker, was at the tunnel when the flood swamped it.

He has been making frantic rounds between the tunnel site and a government-run hospital in Rudraprayag about 140 kilometres away, arriving as soon as more bodies are taken to the hospital for identification.

“He had returned to work in December after spending a month at home. We were extremely close. When I heard about the disaster I couldn’t wait to see him and rushed here,” Mr Verma told The National.

“All I can see here is sludge; it is a 30m (deep) quagmire. How would he be alive? I have no hopes left. I have run to the hospital to see bodies but they are all mutilated…their faces are smashed, they are unrecognisable,” Mr Verma said, with a choked voice.

Tunnel rescue

The brothers are among several family members who are desperately waiting outside the 2.5-km tunnel where emergency workers are struggling to penetrate deeper through slush and silt to reach out to the trapped workers. But there has been no breakthrough yet.

Rescue personnel have cleared debris up to 120 metres into the tunnel but because of the design of the tunnel – it has one entry and then bifurcates -- the challenge to clear the sludge has been slower than hoped.

Emergency workers are now using a remote-sensing device that can detect debris up to 500 metres deep in the ground. They are also attempting to make an alternative entry to reach workers through the tunnel.

But the slow pace of the rescue work has angered dozens of desperate relatives who jostled with police on Wednesday.

They protested near the tunnel, raising slogans and condemning authorities for the slow pace of rescue work, as they demanded the operation to be speeded up or they be allowed to do it themselves.

Carrying a passport size photo of his son Vijay Kumar, 24, who worked as a welder in the tunnel, Ram Dhawan Singh anxiously waits for him at the tunnel entrance. He’s been trying to reach emergency workers with the hope of news about his son.

“I am not waiting for any miracle. I know he is dead but all I want to see is his body. We know this was a natural disaster and we do not blame anyone for it but the government is not doing enough to find the bodies,” Mr Singh told The National.

The 64-year-old labourer hurried to the site in a private cab from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh on Sunday after he was informed about the disaster by his son’s colleagues.

“Vijay called us every day at lunch but that day he did not call. His friend later told us about the incident. The company could not tell where he was at the time of the flood. A friend said he was seen outside the tunnel. We do not even know where he was," the bereaved father said.

“This was a natural disaster but the way the rescue and search operation is happening it will take years if not decades to know the whereabouts of my son.”

Updated: February 10, 2021 05:27 PM

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