Rescue teams in Uttarakhand, India, are on the brink of success in their 17-day-long effort to save 41 workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel since November 12. The low-wage workers, stranded 2.8 miles inside the tunnel, faced numerous challenges, including a failed drilling machine. The breakthrough came as skilled miners used hand tools to make rapid progress in the final stretch of debris.
Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, announced the completion of the rescue pipe installation, expressing confidence that the workers would soon be freed. However, Syed Ata Hasnain from India’s National Disaster Management Authority provided a more cautious assessment, stating that about two meters of drilling remained.
The rescue operation, marked by setbacks and roadblocks, gained momentum as experts employed manual drilling techniques, including “rat mining,” to reach the trapped workers. The 90cm rescue pipe insertion process is expected to take several hours.
The workers, part of a major road project on a Hindu pilgrimage route, became trapped due to a landslide, shedding light on environmental concerns in the Himalayan region. The rescue effort faced criticism for the delay, but international tunneling experts and a collaborative manual drilling approach achieved success.
Relatives of the trapped workers, eagerly awaiting their release, were instructed to be ready to accompany them to a hospital 30km away. The men, provided with oxygen, food, and water through a narrow pipe, are from economically disadvantaged states, earning around $250 a month.
As the rescue operation reaches its final stages, a temporary healthcare facility has been set up to treat the workers, with a helicopter on standby for serious cases. The mental health of the rescued workers is also a concern, with experts anticipating potential post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
The tunnel, part of the $1.5 billion Char Dham highway project, lacked an emergency exit and was built through a geological fault. The incident has prompted scrutiny of India’s environmental assessment procedures for large-scale projects in the Himalayas.