Dehradun: More than a hundred rescuers in northern India struggled for a third day on Tuesday to save dozens of workers trapped underground after the road tunnel they were building collapsed.
Excavators have been removing debris since Sunday morning from the site in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand to create an escape tunnel for the 40 workers, who are all alive.
“Our biggest breakthrough is that we have established contact and there is a supply of oxygen and food,” Uttarkashi district’s top civil servant Abhishek Ruhela told AFP on Tuesday.
“Whatever is necessary for their survival is being done.”
Oxygen was being pumped into the tunnel and small food items such as dry fruit were being provided to the workers, he added.
The State Disaster Response Force said Tuesday rescuers had spoken to the trapped workers via radio.
Ranjit Kumar Sinha, a senior disaster management official, told reporters at the site he was hopeful the workers could be freed by Wednesday, adding that there was enough oxygen where they were trapped “for about five to six days”.
The son of one of the trapped workers, Akash Singh Negi, managed to speak to his father on Tuesday.
“I was allowed to speak to my father for a few seconds using the pipe through which oxygen is being supplied to the stranded workers,” Negi was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.
“He said they were safe and asked us not to worry,” Negi said.
‘Huge amount of debris’
Construction worker Hemant Nayak told AFP that he had been in the tunnel early on Sunday when the roof caved in, but he had been on the right side of the collapse and escaped.
Small amounts of dirt had been falling into the tunnel, but “everyone took it lightly”, he said.
“Then suddenly a huge amount of debris came and the tunnel was closed,” he added.
Photos released by government rescue teams soon after the collapse showed huge piles of rubble blocking the wide tunnel, with twisted metal bars from its roof poking down in front of slabs of concrete.
Teams are using heavy machinery to drive a steel pipe with a width of 90 centimetres (nearly three feet), wide enough for the trapped men to squeeze through the rubble, the government’s highway and infrastructure company said.
The 4.5-kilometre tunnel is being constructed between the towns of Silkyara and Dandalgaon to connect Uttarkashi and Yamunotri, two of the holiest Hindu shrines.
The tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s road project aimed at improving travel conditions between some of the most popular Hindu shrines in the country as well as areas bordering China.
Experts have warned about the impact of extensive construction in Uttarakhand, where large parts of the state are prone to landslides.
“The government must reconsider all ongoing tunnel projects in the Himalayan states,” said environmentalist Suresh Bhai, from the advocacy group Himalaya Bachao Abhiyan, or Save Himalaya Campaign, the Times of India newspaper quoted him as saying.
“Tunnel projects in the Himalayas should be prohibited entirely. They render the mountains vulnerable,” he added.
In January, at least 200 people were killed in flash floods in ecologically fragile Uttarakhand in a disaster that experts partly blamed on excessive development.