Indian Rescuers Strive To Free 41 Trapped Workers

Ambulances were on standby Thursday as Indian rescuers dug through the last metres of debris that separated them from the 41 workmen who had been trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for nearly two weeks.

Rescue personnel have specially equipped wheeled stretchers ready to pull the exhausted men out via 57 meters (187 feet) of steel pipe — after it has been driven through the final piece of the tonnes of soil, concrete, and rubble that has been obstructing their escape.

AFP correspondents on the scene reported emergency vehicles and a field hospital were ready to accept the men who have been stranded since a piece of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand collapsed in 12 days ago.

“We have done rehearsals on how to get people safely out,” National Disaster Response Force chief Atul Karwal told reporters Thursday.

“The boys will go in first,” he said. “We have put wheels under the stretchers so that when we go in, we can get the people out one by one on the stretcher — we are prepared in every way.”

However, rescue attempts have been hampered by repeated delays, including more debris falling, fears of further cave-ins, and drilling machine faults, as progress was stalled on Thursday by technical issues.

‘Himalayan Geology is the Enemy’ 

“The 10 to 12 metres (32 to 39 feet) remaining… we don’t know what can come up, but we are ready to handle it,” Karwal said, adding that the trapped men were “keeping up their morale”.

Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, said the work was on a “war footing,” with a “team of doctors, ambulances, helicopters, and a field hospital” set up.

A top National Disaster Management Authority official, Syed Ata Hasnain, refused to indicate when the men might be released.

“This is like battle,” the retired general told reporters. “You cannot put a timeline on it. In battle, you don’t know what the enemy is going to do.

“Here, the land is your enemy. Himalayan geology is the enemy… it is very challenging work.”

Experts have expressed concern about the consequences of substantial construction in Uttarakhand, where big areas are prone to landslides.

“The rescuers and the workers stuck inside are at equal risk,” Hasnain added.

Prayers for Safe Release 

An AFP journalist reported seeing a flurry of activity inside the Silkyara tunnel entrance.

Concerned family members have gathered outside the site, where a Hindu shrine has been created and a priest is praying for the safe rescue of the imprisoned men.

“The day they will come out of the tunnel, it will be the biggest, happiest day for us,” said Chanchal Singh Bisht, 35, whose 24-year-old cousin Pushkar Singh Ary is trapped inside.

In case the path through the main tunnel entrance fails, rescuers began blasting and drilling from the far end of the approximately half-kilometer (about a quarter-mile) long unfinished tunnel.

Preparations have also been undertaken for a potentially dangerous vertical shaft just above.

On Tuesday, the workers were seen alive for the first time, staring into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent down a narrow conduit carrying air, food, drink, and electricity.

Despite being trapped, they have plenty of space, with the area inside 8.5 metres high and two kilometers long.

The tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s infrastructure project, which aims to reduce travel times between some of the country’s most popular Hindu sites while also boosting access to vital territories bordering rival China.

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