The Weeks-Long Effort to Rescue 41 Construction Workers Trapped in a Tunnel in India

The Weeks-Long Effort to Rescue 41 Construction Workers Trapped in a Tunnel in India

Rescue teams are hoping to free the 41 construction workers who have been trapped in a tunnel in northern India for more than two weeks, attempting to hand drill the workers out.

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Rescuers are attempting to create a horizontal channel that trapped workers can escape through. So far, rescue workers have dug about 1 meter and have 11 more to go, state spokesperson Kirti Panwar said on Monday.

The workers have been trapped behind debris after a landslide near the Himalayas caused a tunnel to collapse on Nov. 12. The rescue mission has taken longer than expected, leaving those trapped inside with limited access to food, water, and medicine.

Rescue teams have been working around the clock to create a safe passageway for people to exit, but faced setbacks due to faulty machinery that broke last week. 

“We don’t know what the drilling machine will have to cut through. It could be loose soil or rocks. But we are prepared,” Devendra Patwal, a disaster management official, said at the scene of the collapse on Monday. 

Here’s a timeline since the collapse. 

Tunnel collapse

On November 12, a 4.5 km highway tunnel that was being built as a way to ease travel to Hindu pilgrimage sites caved into itself, around 200 meters from the tunnel’s entrance. 

Rescue efforts have proven difficult because the tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand state, a mountainous region. 

Authorities initially outlayed a number of plans to rescue the trapped workers, including digging vertically from the top of the mountain, though there are fears that additional debris would fall during the process.  

Rescuers install of a steel pipe to get supplies inside the tunnel 

Rescuers installed a six-inch wide steel pipe to deliver food, water and other supplies to trapped workers on Nov. 21. 

Through the pipe, workers are being fed rotis, flat bread, lentils, and other dishes. Video of the workers also became available after the construction of the pipe. A separate pipe is delivering oxygen, as doctors monitor both the mental and physical health of those trapped.

Family members of the trapped workers worry about their well-being. Jyotish Basumatary, has spoken to his brother, who is trapped, at least four times since the accident. “We called out their names, and one by one they lined up — we could see them on the camera. But nobody spoke about how they felt,” Basumatary told the New York Times.

Rescuers try drilling to reach workers inside

Rescuers were initially planning on using a heavy drill to break through 60 meters of debris from the landslide, but plans were paused on Nov. 24, when the machinery meant to drill a hole wide enough for the trapped workers to travel through was damaged.

Originally, the hope was the drill could push in a pipe that was wide enough to wheel out the trapped construction workers on stretchers, but the drill was completely broken after it hit an obstacle on Friday, Reuters reported. Significant progress was made, with only 10-15 meters left to drill, but rescuers then had to remove the damaged machine, which again cost them time.

Now, two separate rescue plans are taking place. One involves more than a dozen rescuers taking turns using hand drilling tools to expand the horizontal drilling that was put on pause after the auger broke. 

Other workers are drilling vertically from the top of the hill where the tunnel was being built. They will have to drill through nearly 350 feet in order to reach trapped workers, according to the AP

Authorities have not given an official deadline on when they predict the rescue operations will be complete, though some say they believe workers will be back with their families by Christmas.

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