Rescue of 41 Workers Trapped in a Tunnel in India Is in the Final Stretch of Digging

A heavy machinery works at the the entrance to the site of an under-construction road tunnel that had collapsed trapping 40 workers in Silkyara in the northern Uttarakhand state, India, on Monday.

NEW DELHI (AP) — The rescue of 41 construction workers from a collapsed highway tunnel in northern India could happen later Thursday after nearly two weeks of digging and delays.

The drilling of the final stretch resumed following a six-hour delay after blades on the drilling machine were damaged by a metal object in the debris.

“The machine has started operating again in full swing. So we are hopeful that it will finish early,” said Atul Karwal, chief of the state-run National Disaster Response Force.

“We should be able to rescue them in today’s date,” Karwal told reporters at the site.

It took six hours to remove the metal pipes obstructing the drilling, said Bhaskar Khulbe, another official.

Pushkar Singh Dhami, Uttarakhand state’s top elected official, visited the site on Thursday and spoke to some of the trapped workers through walkies-talkies, Karwal said.

The drilling as of late Wednesday night had made it through 44 meters out of approximately the 57 needed, Harpal Singh, a manager of another tunnel project who is helping with the rescue, told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Once they finish excavating the additional 13 meters of dirt and debris, the rescuers can insert and weld together pipes that will be the trapped workers’ route to freedom.

Rescuers resumed drilling horizontally through the entrance of the tunnel Wednesday after problems with the machine forced them to stop digging last week and consider alternate rescue plans.

The mountainous terrain in Uttarakhand has proved a challenge to the drilling machine, which broke down as rescuers attempted to dig horizontally toward the trapped workers. The machine’s high-intensity vibrations also caused more debris to fall.

The workers have been trapped since Nov. 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 meters from the entrance.

On Wednesday evening, ambulances and a team of 15 doctors were deployed to the accident site, PTI reported.

Relatives who had gathered there told PTI they were finally feeling optimistic, after days of anxiety and concern over the rescue and well-being of the workers.

Devashish, whose brother-in-law is among those stuck, said he spoke to him on Monday. “Sonu repeatedly told me not to worry now and that we would meet soon,” he said.

Authorities began supplying the trapped workers with hot meals, made of rice and lentils, through a 15.24 centimeters pipe earlier this week after days of them surviving off of dry food sent through a narrower pipe. Oxygen is being supplied to them through a separate pipe.

Officials on Tuesday released a video, after a camera was pushed through the pipe, showing the workers in their construction hats moving around the blocked tunnel while communicating with rescuers on the ground through walkie-talkies.

Uttarakhand is dotted with Hindu temples, and highway and building construction has been constant to accommodate the influx of pilgrims and tourists. The tunnel is part of the Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.