The Centre is adopting a five-pronged approach to rescue 41 workers who have been trapped in a highway tunnel in Uttarakhand for 10 days, but the tricky terrain of the area has made it difficult to set a definite timeline for the evacuation, officials said on Tuesday.
Personnel at the site of the under-construction Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi district were able to push a six-inch pipeline late Monday. An endoscopic camera sent in through the pipeline captured video footage of the trapped workers on Tuesday, raising hopes of anxious relatives camping near the site. The pipeline can now be used to establish better connectivity and ensure proper nutrition can be provided to the workers, senior government officials said at a press conference.
“When we started the rescue work, the auger machine was considered to be the fastest and safest option. Subsequently, there was a scare when we heard some sounds, and geologists advised that continuing with that might cause further damage and we may have to abandon the whole phase,” Road Transport and Highways Secretary Anurag Jain said.
Officials decided to halt the attempts with the spiral-shaped auger machine for three to four days following the advice. The rescue efforts had resumed after ensuring the safety of workers. This, according to Jain, should take two and a half days to reach the workers barring any further contingencies.
Alongside, a “drift” is being constructed on a side of the tunnel, with a safe channel established from 180 to 150 metres. The Army is mobilising box culverts for this purpose. “This effort may take 10-12 days,” Jain said.
Horizontal drilling from the Barkot end of the 4.5 km tunnel — which has been inaccessible as construction was not begun there — is also in the works, and may take 35-40 days, according to Jain.
Besides, efforts for vertical drilling are continuing, and all rescue efforts will continue in tandem as any emergency might block an existing route.
While the methods may vary depending on the situation on the ground, Jain said there the authorities were confident of evacuating all the 41 men safely.
Asked whether the workers will be able to survive while the rescue efforts are underway, member, National Disaster Management Authority, said the new pipeline, which was not completely through yet, was being tested to send hot cooked food. This, he added, will reduce risks of health emergencies inside the tunnel.
“Due to a pipeline that did not break during the cave-in, there is sufficient water inside and there is power and lighting at the site as well,” Hasnain said.
Initially, compressed survival rations were pushed through to keep the workers alive.
According to official data, 15 of the 41 trapped workers belong to Jharkhand, eight are from Uttar Pradesh, five each are from Odisha and Bihar, and the rest are from Assam, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
On November 12, the tunnel designed to connect the road to Barkot town collapsed as debris fell in a 60-metre stretch on the Silkyara end. Rescue teams at first opted for a 900 mm pipe through the rubble, but safety concerns led them to explore alternative approaches simultaneously.
The area of entrapment, measuring 8.5 metres in height and 2 km in length, is the built-up portion of the tunnel.
Five agencies — Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, power producers SJVNL and THDCIL, Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, and National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited — have been assigned specific responsibilities, working together with occasional task adjustments for efficient operations.
(Clockwise from top) Visuals of workers inside the tunnel at Silkyara in Uttarkashi were released by rescuers on Tuesday; National Disaster Response Force personnel at the site; and a relative shows a photo of one of the trapped men Photos: PTI