Indian rescuers are battling to free 41 men trapped in a road tunnel for nine days as they prepare to dig an entirely new shaft after previous efforts failed. Excavators on Monday were removing earth, concrete and rubble from the site of the under-construction tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand that collapsed on November 12.
The trapped workers have access to light, and supplies of oxygen, dry food, water and medicines are being sent via a pipe. At least three workers have complained of dysentery, officials said. The authorities are now trying to send cooked food and set up a phone connection for them through a second, 6-inch (15cm) pipeline being drilled into the debris, with 42 metres (138 feet) out of an estimated 60 metres (200 feet) already completed, said Bhaskar Khulbe, officer on special duty for the tunnel project.
“Our priority is to save 41 lives who are trapped inside the tunnel. Through this [pipeline], we will be able to send necessary things to them,” Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari told reporters on Sunday.
Officials are also considering setting up an optical fibre connection through this pipeline, Gadkari added, which can be used to insert a camera or phone connection into the tunnel to help workers speak to their families. But rescue efforts have been slowed by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of the crucial heavy drilling machines, with the air force having to twice airlift new kit.
Experts have warned about the impact of extensive construction in Uttarakhand, where large parts of the state are prone to landslides.
Engineers had been trying to horizontally drive a steel pipe through the debris, just wide enough for the increasingly desperate men to squeeze through.
But drilling on that route was paused on Friday after a cracking sound created a “panic situation”, officials said. Teams were now preparing to dig the new shaft from above, forcing workers to cut an entirely new track up to the top of the forested hill high above for the heavy equipment needed.
The new plans include drilling vertically from the top of the mountain, which rescuers hope can start by Tuesday as they await the arrival of machinery, said Jasvant Kapoor, a general manager at state-run company SJVN, which is involved in the rescue efforts. Top local civil servant Abhishek Ruhela said the track to the new drilling site was three-quarters built.
“Up to 900 metres (2,950 feet) of the 1,200 metre-long road being built for drilling over the tunnel has been completed,” Ruhela told the AFP news agency.
Foreign experts have been drafted in, including independent disaster investigator Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association.
“We are going to find a solution and get them out,” Dix told reporters on Monday at the site. “A lot of work is being done here. It is important that not only the men rescued but also the men who are [doing the] rescuing are safe.”
Villagers have set up a Hindu temple at the mouth of the tunnel to the local god, Boukhnag, saying the original temple had been moved during construction. Some villagers blamed the tunnel collapse on the fact that the initial temple was destroyed. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Monday said he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the crisis.
“Every effort is being made,” Dhami said in a statement, insisting that the “workers trapped in the tunnel are safe”.
The tunnel is part of Modi’s infrastructure project aimed at cutting travel times between some of the most popular Hindu sites in the country, as well as improving access to strategic areas bordering rival China.