India: Drilling to rescue 40 men trapped in tunnel halted after cracking sound

Rescuers are waiting for a new machine as the workers stay trapped for the 7th day

By AP

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Published: Sat 18 Nov 2023, 10:02 AM

Forty workers were trapped in a collapsed road tunnel in northern India for a seventh day Saturday as rescuers waited for a new machine to drill through the rubble so they could crawl to their freedom.

On Friday, the drilling was interrupted when some machine bearings became damaged by the breaking of rocks and clearing of debris, officials said, adding a new challenge to the long-drawn rescue efforts.

A new machine was expected to reach the accident site later Saturday, allowing rescuers to start drilling again, said Vijay Singh, an officer at the control room.

Authorities began drilling into the rubble and debris on Thursday and have so far covered a stretch of 24 metres (79 feet), said Devendra Patwal, a disaster management official, said. It may require up to 60 metres (197 feet) to enable the trapped workers' escape, Patwal told The Associated Press on Friday.

Earlier, the rescuers had hoped to complete the drilling by Friday night and create an escape tunnel of pipes welded together. But rescue efforts hit a snag after a loud cracking sound came from within the tunnel, startling the authorities, who paused the drilling after they found parts of the machine damaged, Tarun Kumar Baidya, director at the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, said from the accident site.

As the rescue operation stretched into its seventh day, families of those trapped were frustrated and angry. Relatives from various states have spent nights near the tunnel, seeking updates. The recent setback has only exacerbated their worries.

Krishna Patel, whose 20-year-old nephew is among the trapped, had hoped to see his relative on Friday.

“The administration keeps changing the timeline for when they may be rescued. It's very frustrating,” he said.

Some of the workers felt fever and body aches Wednesday, but officials have said there has been no deterioration in their condition. Nuts, roasted chickpeas, popcorn and medicine are being sent to them via a pipe every two hours.

Patwal said two doctors at the accident site were in regular contact with the trapped workers to ensure their physical and mental well-being. “We are trying our best to keep the spirit of the trapped labourers high because it is a trying time for all — the rescuers as well as the trapped people," he said.

The construction workers have been trapped since Sunday when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometre (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 meters (650 feet) from the entrance. The hilly area is prone to landslides and subsidence.

The site is in Uttarakhand, a mountainous state dotted with Hindu temples that attract many pilgrims and tourists. Highway and building construction has been constant to accommodate the influx.

The tunnel is part of the busy Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.

About 200 disaster relief personnel have been at the site using drilling equipment and excavators in the rescue operation, with the plan to push 80-centimetre-wide (2.6-foot-wide) steel pipes through an opening of excavated debris.

A machine used earlier in the week was slow in pushing the pipes through the debris, a state government statement said. It was replaced with an American Auger machine with a drilling capacity of up to 5 metres (16 feet) per hour and is equipped with a 99-centimetre (3.2-foot) diameter pipe to clear debris. Rescuers are waiting for another American Auger to replace the damaged one.

State officials have contacted Thai experts who helped rescue a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018, state government administrator Gaurav Singh said. They also have approached the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for possible help.

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