Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Wider pipeline inserted, rescuers release video of trapped workers

Security personnel and others at the under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway, days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed trapping several workers inside, in Uttarkashi district. Photo: PTI

Uttarkashi: A new wider pipeline was pushed in through the collapsed highway tunnel in Uttarakhand to deliver cooked food to 41 workers trapped inside for more than a week.

Rescuers also released the first video of the workers trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel. The visuals were captured using an endoscopic camera sent in through the alternative 6-inch food pipeline.

In the video, the workers, wearing yellow and white helmets, are seen receiving food items sent to them through the pipeline and talking to each other.

This comes as a big relief to the families of these workers.The men have been stuck in the tunnel since it caved in early on November 12 and are safe, authorities said, with access to light, oxygen, dry food, water and medicines already being sent by a smaller pipe.

Rescuers said preparations were under way to start vertical drilling to pull them out.

Authorities have not said what caused the 4.5-km (3-mile) tunnel to cave in, but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.

"We have been able to achieve a breakthrough of pushing through a six-inch pipe," said Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of the state-run National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) which is building the tunnel.

Khalkho said horizontal drilling through the debris - which had been suspended on Friday after a snag in the machine and fears of a fresh collapse - would resume now that the new pipeline had been pushed through but he did not give a timeline.

The men have been receiving nuts, puffed rice, chickpeas and other dry food via the smaller pipe. They are confined in a 2-km stretch of the tunnel and not 50 metres as earlier reported, authorities said.

They will now get hot food including rice, lentils, soybeans and peas, Prem Pokhriyal, a doctor who speaks to the trapped workers, told Reuters.

"Today, they demanded chewable vitamin C tablets and it was provided," Pokhriyal said. "As of now, everyone seems fit and fine."

Besides the horizontal drilling, rescuers are exploring five new plans to pull out the workers including drilling vertically from the top of the mountain.

Workers build a path in the hill as part of an alternate plan to reach to the workers trapped in a tunnel after a portion of the tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 19, 2023. Photo: Reuters/Shankar Prasad Nautiyal.

Khalkho said new, heavy machines for vertical drilling would arrive by road in a day or two. The state-run Border Roads Organisation is building hill paths for the machines from both ends of the tunnel and one would be ready late on Monday or on Tuesday, district official Abhishek Ruhela said.

Desperate families of nine of the 41 men have reached the tunnel site in Silkyara, high in the hills of Uttarakhand. The trapped men are low-wage workers, mostly from poor states in the north and east of India.

"I went inside the tunnel to talk to my brother through the steel pipe and he asked me if the government is actually working to save them or not," said Ashok Kumar, whose brother Santosh Kumar, is one of the 41.

"For how long can he survive inside eating this puffed rice and chickpeas? For how long will they be inside?" Ashok said.
(With inputs from PTI, Reuters.)

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