Indian rescuers have brought in a new manual digging machine to open a vertical shaft to free 41 workers trapped inside a collapsed road tunnel for two weeks, after efforts through another route hit snags just metres from reaching the men.
A heavy drill brought in to break through nearly 60 metres (about 200 feet) of debris was damaged on Friday while being pulled out of the 47-metre (154-foot) pipe inserted to bring out the trapped workers. It had to be pulled out entirely, government officials said on Saturday, adding the last 10-15 metres (33-49 feet) would have to be broken with hand-held power tools.
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The men, construction workers from some of India’s poorest states, have been stuck in the 4.5km (three-mile) tunnel being built in Uttarakhand state in northern India since it caved in early on November 12. Authorities have said they are safe, with access to light, oxygen, food, water and medicines.
Pushkar Singh Dhami, chief minister of Uttarakhand state, said the damaged machine would be taken out by Sunday morning, allowing manual drilling to start.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is assisting the rescue, told reporters at the tunnel site that although the machine is broken, he was not giving up hope as there were “many ways” to reach the men.
“I am confident that the 41 men are coming home.”
Rescue efforts have been painfully slow, complicated by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of crucial heavy drilling machines, with the air force having to twice airlift new kit.
Ambulances are on standby and a field hospital has been prepared to receive the men when they are rescued.
‘Challenging Himalayan terrain’
AFP reporters at the tunnel site on Saturday reported seeing a heavy earth digger being taken up the specially cut track to the top of a forested hill above the tunnel to start a risky vertical shaft.
Officials estimate the proposed vertical shaft would need to be 89 metres (291 feet) deep, a complex dig above the men in an area that has already suffered a collapse.
Work has also begun digging from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be approximately 480 metres (1,575 feet).
Dhami, the state’s top elected official, said the authorities and teams of international experts were working on all options.
“We will soon be successful in evacuating our labour brothers safely,” he said in a post on social media.
Rescue teams have stretchers fitted with wheels ready to pull the exhausted men through 57 metres (187 feet) of pipe, if it can be driven through the final section of rubble blocking their escape.
The workers were seen alive for the first time on Tuesday, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity are being delivered.
Since Wednesday, officials have repeatedly said they were optimistic of a breakthrough within hours, but a government statement has also noted that any timeline is “subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.