Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami and Union Minister VK Singh meet the worker who was trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel after the rescue operation, in Uttarkashi on Tuesday. Image Credit: ANI

Silkyara tunnel: Indian rescuers have safely brought out all 41 workers from a collapsed Himalayan road tunnel after a marathon 17-day engineering operation to free them, a minister said Tuesday.

"I am completely relieved and happy as 41 trapped labourers in the Silkyara Tunnel Collapse have been successfully rescued," Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari said in a statement. "This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years."

Ambulances with their lights flashing lined up at the mouth of the tunnel to transport the workers to a hospital about 30 km away.

"The work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed," chief minister of Uttarakhand state Pushkar Singh Dhami said, adding they would be brought out of the tunnel "soon".

Rescue teams were seen in photos on social media smiling and flashing victory signs as the drilling ended through the tonnes of earth, concrete and rubble that had been blocking the workers' escape.

Stretchers have been specially fitted with wheels to pull the exhausted men out through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe.

"We are thankful to God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them," Naiyer Ahmad told AFP, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad is among the trapped workers, and who has been camping at the site for over two weeks.

Sudhansu Shah, who has also been camping out since shortly after the November 12 tunnel collapse waiting for his younger brother Sonu Shah, said relatives had started to celebrate.

"We are really hopeful and happy," he said.

'Effort and sacrifice'

Dhami praised the "prayers of tens of millions of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams engaged in the rescue operation".

The health of the workers was "fine", but a team of medics in a field hospital were ready on site as soon as they were brought out, he added.

Previous hopes of reaching the men have been dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines, and the government has warned repeatedly of the "challenging Himalayan terrain".

After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners dug the final section by hand using a so-called "rat-hole" technique, a three-person team working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.

Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra paid tribute to the men at the rockface who squeezed into the narrow pipe to clear the rocks by hand.

"After all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it's the humble 'rathole miners' who make the vital breakthrough," Mahindra said on X, formerly Twitter.

"It's a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort and sacrifice."

'Playing cricket'

Last week, engineers working to drive a metal pipe horizontally through the 57 metres of rock and concrete ran into metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the rubble, snapping a giant earth-boring machine.

Rescuers brought in a superheated plasma cutter to slice through metal rods that repeatedly impeded progress.

A separate vertical shaft was also started from the forested hill above the tunnel, reaching more than halfway through the 89 metres needed to reach the stranded men, a risky route in an area that has already suffered a collapse.

Digging, blasting and drilling also took place from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be around 480 metres.

The workers were seen alive for the first time last week, 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.

Though trapped, the workers have plenty of space in the tunnel, with the area inside 8.5 metres high and stretching about two kilometres in length.

Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is advising the rescue on site, told reporters the men were in good spirits, and that he had heard they had been "playing cricket".