Rescuers in India Trying to Evacuate 41 Workers from a Collapsed Tunnel are Delayed Again

AP Photo
Rescuers rest at the site of an under-construction road tunnel that collapsed in Silkyara in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023.

UTTARKASHI, India (AP) — Rescue teams trying to reach 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India for nearly two weeks stopped drilling again Friday after their boring machine hit a new metal obstruction in rock debris, further delaying efforts.

Devendra Patwal, a disaster management officer, said it may take the rescuers several hours to cut the metal object and resume the final phase of digging at the accident site in Uttarakhand state.

Patwal said the machine was stopped after it had drilled about 2 meters (6.5 feet) of the last stretch of 12 meters (40 feet) of rock debris that would open a passage for the trapped workers to come out.

On Thursday, the platform of the machine became unstable while boring and halted the digging, said Kirti Panwar, a Uttarakhand state government spokesman. It resumed drilling Friday evening, Panwar said.

Panwar could not say how long it would take to complete the drilling and to bring the construction workers out. They have been trapped since Nov. 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 meters (650 feet) from the entrance.

As the rescue operation stretched into the 13th day, teams had drilled through 46 meters (151 feet) and needed to excavate up to 12 meters (40 feet) more to create a passageway, Panwar said.

Before the work resumed Friday, rescuers manually dug through debris to remove pieces of metal and prevent further damage, he said.

The rescue teams also are inserting pipes into the dug-out channel and welding them together to serve as a passageway. About 46 meters (151 feet) of pipe has been put in so far, according to Panwar. Members of the National Disaster Response Force plan to bring the workers out one by one on stretchers that have been fitted with wheels.

The mountainous terrain in the area has proven to be a challenge for the drilling machine, which broke down last weekend as rescue teams attempted to dig horizontally toward the trapped workers. The machine’s high-intensity vibrations also caused more debris to fall.

The drilling had to stop again on Wednesday after the boring machine hit a metal girder, causing some damage to its blades.

Authorities have supplied the trapped workers with hot meals made of rice and lentils through a 6-inch (15-centimeter) pipe after days of surviving on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. Oxygen is being supplied through a separate pipe.

Most of the trapped workers are migrant laborers from across the country. Many of their families have traveled to the accident site, where they have camped out for days to get updates on the rescue effort and in hopes of seeing their relatives soon.

“We are all waiting here, hoping they come out,” Haridwar Sharma, whose brother, Sushil, is among the workers, said. “It is not in our hands … the administration is at it, the machinery is there. With God’s blessing, we are hopeful.”

Officials earlier released a video from a camera pushed through the pipe that showed the workers in their construction hats moving around the blocked tunnel while communicating with rescuers on walkie-talkies.

The tunnel the workers were building was designed as part of the Chardham all-weather road, which will connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites. Some experts say the project, a flagship initiative of the federal government, will exacerbate fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris.

Large numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit Uttarakhand’s many Hindu temples, with the number increasing over the years due to the continued construction of buildings and roadways.