Fourteen metres to freedom: Final push to free trapped Indian tunnel workers

Fourteen metres to freedom: Final push to free trapped Indian tunnel workers
Fourteen metres to freedom: Final push to free trapped Indian tunnel workers

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - A rescue personnel stands near an entrance of the Silkyara under construction road tunnel, during the final phase of a rescue operation, days after a portion of it collapsed in the Uttarkashi district of India's Uttarakhand state on November 23, 2023. — AFP pic

SILKYARA TUNNEL (India) Nov 24 — Just a few metres of rock and earth separate Indian rescue teams from 41 workers who have been trapped inside a collapsed road tunnel for nearly two weeks, officials said Friday, saying they were optimistic of success within hours.

After a series of rapid advances, hopes that the men’s freedom was imminent were dashed late Wednesday when the drilling machine powering through tonnes of rock and concrete ran into metal rods, but those have now been cleared.

Rescue teams have stretchers fitted with wheels ready to pull the exhausted men through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe — once it has been driven through the final section of rubble blocking their escape.

“We have to (drill) 14 metres further inside the tunnel,” Bhaskar Khulbe, a senior government official overseeing rescue efforts, told reporters on Friday.

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“If everything goes well, we hope to reach them by today evening,” he said, adding that the “trapped workers are in good frame of mind”.

But a government statement has also noted that any timeline was “subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.

‘Geology is the enemy’

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The area outside the tunnel has been a flurry of activity, with worried relatives gathering and rescue teams stopping to pray at a Hindu shrine erected at the entrance.

Ambulances are on standby and a field hospital has been prepared to receive the men who have been trapped since a portion of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand caved in 13 days ago.

National Disaster Response Force chief Atul Karwal said his teams have been rehearsing how — once the steel pipe breaks through — they will bring the men out as quickly and safely as possible.

“The boys will go in first,” he said Thursday. “We have put wheels under the stretchers so that when we go in, we can get the people out one by one on the stretcher — we are prepared in every way.”

Rescue efforts have been hit with repeated delays caused by falling debris, fears of further cave-ins and drilling machine breakdowns.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said Thursday the work was on a “war footing”, with a “team of doctors, ambulances, helicopters and a field hospital” set up.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a senior rescue official and retired general, said their efforts were “like battle”.

“Here, the land is your enemy,” he said Thursday. “Himalayan geology is the enemy... it is very challenging work.”

Experts have warned of the impact of extensive construction in Uttarakhand, large parts of which are prone to landslides. — AFP

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