Rescue efforts in UK tunnel halted

19 November,2023 08:26 AM IST |  Uttarkashi  |  Agencies

Pressure mounts as technical snag may be eating into precious time; trapped workers grow tired and weak

Rescue of 40 labourers stuck in the tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon has been suspended on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway. Second collapse feared after drilling causes tunnel to move. Pic/PTI

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The operation to rescue labourers stuck in the partially-collapsed Silkyara tunnel is on hold since Friday when a US-made auger machine deployed to drill and push in pipes through the rubble to prepare an escape passage for the trapped workers developed a snag. Another high-performance drilling machine airlifted from Indore in Madhya Pradesh arrived in Silkyara on Saturday where its three parts will be assembled before it is deployed for drilling, officials on the spot said.

Meanwhile, the number of workers who have been trapped inside the tunnel since last Sunday has been revised to 41. The NHIDCL, which is constructing the tunnel through Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd, came to know about this discrepancy on Friday. According to an earlier list issued by the NHIDCL, 40 workers were trapped inside the tunnel after a part of it collapsed at around 5.30 am on November 12.

Deepak Kumar from Muzaffarpur district in Bihar was identified as the 41st person to be stuck in the tunnel. A team of officials from the Centre including Additional Secretary, MoRTH Mahmood Ahmed, Deputy Secretary, PMO, Mangesh Ghildiyal, Varun Adhikari, Geologist Engg, and engineering expert Armando Capellan have arrived in Silkyara to do an on-the-spot review of the rescue operations.

Family members of trapped workers wait with baited breath for rescue efforts to resume. Pic/PTI

Around 2.45 pm on Friday, during the positioning of the fifth pipe, a loud cracking sound was heard in the tunnel after which the rescue operation was suspended, a statement issued by the NHIDCL late on Friday night said. The sound created panic in the rescue team. The pipe-pushing activity was stopped after an expert involved with the project warned about the possibility of further collapse in the vicinity.

The tunnel is part of the ambitious Char Dham all-weather road project of the central government being constructed under the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami held a meeting with officials at his official residence in Dehradun to take an update on the rescue operations at the tunnel in Silkyara. Dhami said he hopes the state-of-the-art machines manufactured in the country and abroad will be successful in rescuing of the labourers.

"Under the guidance of the PMO, the state government is busy making all efforts to evacuate labourers trapped inside the tunnel ares. We hope we will soon succeed in the mission," he said. "The government stands with the families of workers who are trapped. Their safe and timely evacuation is our priority," Dhami said. However, with the rescue operations at the tunnel entering the seventh day, families of the stranded labourers are getting desperate. The operation was halted on Friday afternoon.

Families camping outside tunnel in a state of panic

Their voices are getting weaker, their strength seemingly dimming, those keeping vigil outside the Silkyara tunnel here said on Saturday after speaking to their relatives trapped inside for seven days, and counting.

As the hours tick by, the desperation of families waiting outside is mounting and the machine snag has exacerbated the anxiety. The health condition of the men counting the hours inside the dark tunnel is worsening and families keeping vigil outside the tunnel are getting increasingly panicky, said Haridwar Sharma, whose younger brother Sushil is among those inside the tunnel.

"All we are getting are assurances from authorities that the trapped labourers will be rescued. It has been nearly a week," Sharma, who is from Bihar's Rohtas district, told the media. "There is no work going on inside the tunnel. Neither the company nor the government is doing anything. The company says a machine is on the way," he added tearfully.

Among those waiting is the family of Gabbar Singh Negi. His two brothers, Maharaj Singh and Prem Singh, and son Akash Singh have been camping outside, desperate for any sliver of news that comes their way. The family belongs to Kotdwar in the state. Maharaj said he spoke to Gabbar through a pipe used for supplying oxygen and his voice sounded very feeble.

"I could not talk to my brother. His voice sounded very weak. He was hardly audible. Rescue work in the tunnel has come to a halt. Those trapped are also short of food and water. We have come to the end of our patience. What more can I say?" Maharaj said. Their brother Prem said the trapped workers are beginning to lose hope. "Gabbar said he is alright but his voice is feebler now. They are getting light edibles like chana, kheer and badam. How long can they sustain on this?" Prem said.

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