Indian Rescuers Just Feet Away From Reaching 41 Workers Trapped In Collapsed Tunnel For Over 2 Weeks

(AP) — Rescuers in India were on the verge Tuesday of reaching 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel for over two weeks in the country’s north, after drilling their way through debris to get to them, officials said.

Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority overseeing rescue efforts at the accident site in Uttarakhand state, said two more metres (about seven feet) remain to be dug out. Once that’s done, the trapped workers can be pulled out through a passageway made of welded pipes which rescuers pushed through dirt and rocks, he said.

“Soon all the labourers brothers will be taken out,” Pushkar Singh Dhami, top official in Uttarakhand, posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Kirti Panwar, a state government spokesperson, said about a dozen men had worked overnight to manually dig through rocks and debris, taking turns to drill using hand-held drilling tools and clearing out the muck in what he said was the final stretch of the rescue operation.

Rescuers resorted to manual digging after the drilling machine broke down irreparably on Friday while drilling horizontally from the front because of the mountainous terrain of Uttarakhand. The machine bored through about 47 metres (nearly 154 feet) out of approximately the 57-60 metres (nearly 187-196 feet) needed, before rescuers started to work by hand to create a passageway to evacuate the trapped workers.

Hasnain on Tuesday said rescuers had managed to drill through more than 55 metres so far.

Rescue teams have inserted pipes into dug-out areas and welded them together so the workers could be brought out on wheeled stretchers.

The labourers have been trapped since November 12 when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometre (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 metres (650 feet) from the entrance.

Rescuers on Sunday also began to create a vertical channel with a newly replaced drilling machine as a contingency plan.

What began as a rescue mission expected to take a few days has turned into weeks, and officials have been hesitant to give a timeline for when it might be completed.

“I just feel good. The drilling on top of the mountain is coming along perfectly, in the tunnel, it’s coming along very well. I have never said ‘I feel good’ before,” Arnold Dix, an international tunneling expert who is helping with the rescue, told reporters at the site on Tuesday.

Most of the trapped workers are migrant labourers from across the country. Many of their families have traveled to the location, where they have camped out for days to get updates on the rescue effort and in hopes of seeing their relatives soon.

Authorities have supplied the trapped workers with hot meals through a six-inch (15-centimetre) pipe after days of surviving only on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. They are getting oxygen through a separate pipe, and more than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, have been at the site monitoring their health.

The tunnel the workers were building was designed as part of the Chardham all-weather road, which will connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites. Some experts say the project, a flagship initiative of the federal government, will exacerbate fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris.

Large numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit Uttarakhand’s many Hindu temples, with the number increasing over the years because of the continued construction of buildings and roadways.