Rescue crews in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand have successfully dug through to a tunnel where 41 workers were trapped for over two weeks after a collapse, and evacuations are now underway.
The breakthrough comes after nearly 17 days of around-the-clock rescue operations since the tunnel caved in on December 13. Workers had been boring through the mountain to build a dam tunnel near the town of Uttarkashi when disaster struck about 150 meters inside.
The hydropower project tunnel is being built under the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric scheme, run by the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). When completed, it will channel water from the Dhauli Ganga river to power turbines.
Over 150 workers were inside the tunnel when it caved in. While 112 managed to escape, 41 were trapped behind debris and could not be contacted. For days, hopes dwindled as relatives kept vigil and rescuers were unable to break through.
The Indian Army joined specialized disaster teams like the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), along with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). But entering the collapsed tunnel remained impossible due to pooling water, shooter stones, and hardened debris.
|Tunnel collapse traps workers
|December 13, 2022
|Army relief operations begin
|December 14, 2022
|NDRF, SDRF teams join rescue
|December 15, 2022
|ITBP team arrives
|December 17, 2022
|Manual drilling starts
|November 27, 2023
|November 28, 2023
Breakthrough After Persistent Rescue Efforts
After over two weeks of failed attempts with machines, rescue teams began manual digging this Monday. Using hydraulic cutters, chisels, wedges, and hammers, they created a parallel tunnel to reach the trapped workers.
Special "rat-hole" miners from Meghalaya, experienced in cramped, risky conditions, were also flown in by helicopters to aid the dangerous horizontal drilling.
Their efforts finally succeeded early Tuesday when a hole was cleared through the debris and contact established with some workers.
"We have connected to the trapped workers and permission has been sought from medical experts to determine whether they can sustain themselves if we open the hole further to carry out rescue operations," said Vivek Pandey, a spokesman for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
Following health evaluations, evacuations have now begun through the small hole. This opening will gradually be widened as more individuals are brought out. Relief materials and essentials have also been passed through to the workers who have endured over 500 hours underground in darkness.
The Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami shared optimistic updates on Twitter, saying rescue authorities are working round the clock and that the families of those trapped should "have patience and courage."
What Comes Next?
According to officials, extricating all 41 people safely could take several hours. Medical teams and ambulances are on standby at the site to provide emergency treatment.
The evacuees will then be transferred to the district hospital for further care. Specialists warn their lack of nutrition and existing injuries may require significant rehabilitation before they can return to normal life. Trauma counseling has additionally been arranged to support mental health needs.
For loved ones keeping hopeful vigil nearby, news of the first rescues comes as an enormous relief. But they know more dangers may yet emerge, and full celebration still waits until all missing workers are above ground. State authorities continue urging patience, though optimism grows as the relentless rescue mission nears its goal.
Investigations into the disaster will pick up pace in the operation’s aftermath. Potential construction oversights, negligence, compensation policies, and new safety recommendations are likely to dominate public debate for some time. Though first and foremost, the extraordinary rescue itself will be hailed nationwide as hopes remain fixed on safely retrieving every one of the 41 trapped miners after this against-the-odds breakthrough.
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