tunnel india trapped workers
Heavy machinery moves outside a tunnel where 40 road workers are trapped after a portion of the tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 16, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Lucknow: Rescuers in northern India supplied food and medicine to 40 construction workers on Thursday as officials started drilling through the rubble to reach the men who have been trapped since a portion of the tunnel they were working on collapsed over the weekend.

Rescuers planned to insert wide steel pipes to create a passage to free the workers trapped since early Sunday in the mountainous Uttarakhand state. A new drilling machine was assembled after three Indian air force transport aircraft flew its parts in from New Delhi on Wednesday.

The American Auger machine will be used to drill a stretch of nearly 45 meters (148 feet) and rescuers hope to reach the trapped workers by Friday night or Saturday, said Devendra Patwal, a disaster management relief official.

A machine used earlier in the week was found to be slow in pushing the pipes through the debris, a state government statement said on Wednesday.

“We are hopeful that all individuals trapped inside will be safely rescued within a day or two,” said Pushkar Singh Dhami, the top elected official in Uttarakhand state.

The stranded workers are being provided with cashew nuts, peanuts, soaked and roasted chickpeas, popcorn, and medicines every two hours, said Devendra Patwal, a disaster management relief official.

Some complained of fever and body aches on Wednesday, but there has been no deterioration in their condition, he said.

Yogesh cut short his Diwali celebrations and rushed to the collapsed tunnel when he learned that his brother was trapped. He spoke to Vishal, his brother, on Wednesday.

“He sounded tense but said he was okay. He asked about the rescue operation, and I told him that it is going on a war footing,” said Yogesh.

Anshu Manish Khalko, a National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation official, said he expected the drilling operation to start sometime Thursday.

“Once operational, this machine will facilitate the creation of an escape tunnel quickly to ensure evacuation of the trapped labourers,” he said.

On Wednesday, relatives and friends of the trapped workers gathered outside the tunnel and were seen growing frustrated and angry. The state government has been consulting with the Indian army and foreign experts on ways to proceed with the rescue.

State officials have contacted Thai experts who helped rescue a junior association football team that was trapped in a cave system in northern Thailand in 2018, state government administrator Gaurav Singh said. They also have approached the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for possible help, Singh said.

About 200 disaster relief personnel have been at the site using drilling equipment and excavators in the rescue operation, with the plan to push 75-centimeter-wide (2.5-foot-wide) steel pipes through an opening of excavated debris.

Falling debris lightly injured two rescue workers, and delayed operations on Tuesday and Wednesday. No fresh landslide has occurred since Tuesday.

A landslide during road construction caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer tunnel to collapse about 200 meters (500 feet) from the entrance. It is a hilly tract of land, prone to landslide and subsidence.

Uttarakhand is a mountainous state dotted with Hindu temples that attract many pilgrims and tourists and construction of highways and buildings has been constant to accommodate the influx.

The tunnel is part of the busy Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.