Push to rescue 41 Indian workers trapped in tunnel enters final stage

Ambulances on standby as rescuers dig through final metres of debris to help workers trapped for nearly two weeks.

Rescue workers converse near the site of a collapsed tunnels
Rescuers gather near a collapsed tunnel where 41 construction workers are trapped in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand on November 22, 2023 [AP Photo]

The rescue operation in northern India to free 41 construction workers who have been trapped in a collapsed tunnel for nearly two weeks is in the final stages, authorities say.

Atul Karwal, chief of the state-run National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), told reporters on Thursday that progress was delayed when a drilling machine was damaged.

“The machine has started operating again in full swing, so we are hopeful that it will finish early,” Karwal said. “We should be able to rescue them in today’s date.”

The men have been trapped below ground in the mountainous region of Uttarakhand since November 12 when a landslide collapsed a section of the 4.5km (2.8-mile) tunnel they were working on about 200m (656ft) from the entrance.

Rescue efforts to reach the workers have been set back on several occasions by damaged equipment, fears about cave-ins and the fragile geology of the region.

“The region is very weak, tectonically, because there [are] many earthquakes occurring there. The Himalayas are very fragile, and it’s not a place where you can just go and put a tunnel,” geologist CP Rajendran told Al Jazeera.

As of Thursday evening, about 12 metres (40ft) of additional drilling were left before a passageway could be forged for the workers.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, the state’s top elected official, visited the site on Thursday and said the rescue teams plan to insert and weld together pipes that would be the trapped workers’ route to freedom.

NDRF members “will then crawl inside and bring out the workers one by one, most likely on stretchers which have been fitted with wheels,” Karwal 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,” he added.

Authorities have said the men are safe and have access to light, oxygen, food and water.

Ambulances are ready at the site to evacuate the workers once they are brought out of the tunnel.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies