After pouring the final segment of pipe in a grueling 17-day operation, Indian rescuers were on the verge of bringing out 41 men trapped in a collapsed road tunnel on Tuesday.
Ambulances moved near the mouth of the tunnel entrance, ready to accept the men who had been stranded since a section of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand collapsed.
“The work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed,” chief minister of Uttarakhand state Pushkar Singh Dhami said, adding they would be brought out of the tunnel “soon”.
As the drilling finished through the tonnes of soil, concrete, and rubble that had been obstructing the workers’ escape, rescue teams were spotted on social media smiling and flashing victory signs.
Stretchers with wheels have been specially designed to transport the fatigued guys through 57 metres (187 ft) of steel pipe.
“We are thankful to God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them,” Naiyer Ahmad told AFP, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad is among the trapped workers, and who has been camping at the site for over two weeks.
Sudhansu Shah, who has also been camping out since shortly after the November 12 tunnel collapse waiting for his younger brother Sonu Shah, said relatives had started to celebrate.
“We are really hopeful and happy,” he said.
‘Effort and sacrifice’
He commended the “prayers of tens of millions of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams engaged in the rescue operation” .
The workers’ health was “fine,” but a team of medics in a field hospital was ready to go as soon as they were taken out, he added.
Previous attempts to reach the soldiers were thwarted by falling debris and the failure of numerous drilling rigs, and the administration has repeatedly warned of the “challenging Himalayan terrain.”
Following a series of setbacks, military engineers and professional miners dug the final stretch by hand using a so-called “rat-hole” technique, in which a three-person crew worked at the rock face within a metal conduit barely wide enough for someone to squeeze through.
Anand Mahindra, an Indian billionaire, gave tribute to the workers on the rockface who squeezed into the tight conduit to clean the rocks by hand.
“After all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it’s the humble ‘rathole miners’ who make the vital breakthrough,” Mahindra said on X, formerly Twitter.
“It’s a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort and sacrifice.”
Last week, engineers attempting to drive a horizontal metal pipe through the 57 meters of rock and concrete collided with metal girders and construction vehicles trapped in the wreckage, shattering a massive earth-boring equipment.
Rescuers used a superheated plasma cutter to chop through metal bars that were continuously impeding progress.
A separate vertical shaft was also started from the forested hill above the tunnel, reaching more than halfway through the 89 meters required to reach the stranded men, a perilous route in an already collapsed area.
Digging, blasting, and drilling were also carried out from the far side of the road tunnel, a considerably longer third path estimated to be roughly 480 meters long.
The workers were spotted alive for the first time last week, staring into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent down a narrow conduit carrying oxygen, food, drink, and electricity.
Despite being trapped, the workers have plenty of space in the tunnel, which is 8.5 meters high and two kilometers long.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is advising the rescue on the ground, told reporters that the men were in high spirits and had been “playing cricket.”