Rescue teams on Tuesday morning said that rescuers digging by hand are within just five metres of reaching 41 men trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for 17 days and a breakthrough was expected “soon.”
“The escape passage has been prepared up to 52 metres (170 feet) inside the tunnel, and passage will breakthrough at 57 metres (187 feet)… the rescue operation is expected to be completed soon,” chief minister of Uttarakhand state Pushkar Singh Dhami told reporters at the site, without giving a specific timeframe.
A skilled team of workers began removing the muck by hand using the rat-hole mining technique on Monday while 800-mm diameter pipes were being pushed through the rubble by an auger machine.
“Pipe has gone in up to 52 metres. Earlier it was at 51 metres. It was pushed one metre further in my presence. It will be pushed two metres more to 54 metres after which one more pipe will be laid,” Dhami said.
Government has also undertaken road repair work near the Silkyara tunnel to facilitate smooth movement of ambulances while rescue operation is underway.
When asked whether there were hurdles on the way, he said steel and iron girders were not being encountered. “Stones are coming in the way but they are being broken using cutters,” the chief minister said.
A worker from the Trenchless company, which is pushing the pipes with the auger machine, said if no hurdles are faced, some good news could be expected by this evening.
Rat-hole mining is a controversial and hazardous procedure in which miners in small groups go down narrow burrows to excavate small quantities of coal.
Uttarakhand government’s nodal officer Neeraj Khairwal made it clear that the men brought to the site were not rat-hole miners but people who are experts in the technique.
They are likely to be divided into teams of two or three. Each team will go into the steel chute laid into the escape passage for brief periods. Rajput Rai, a rat-hole drilling expert, said one man will do the drilling, another collects the rubble with his hands and the third places it on a trolley to be pulled out.
The rescue operation took a hit on Friday when the auger drill — a corkscrew-like device with a rotary blade at the front end — that was drilling into the debris got stuck , forcing officials to give up on the 25-tonne machine.
The tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway, one of Modi’s most ambitious projects, aimed at connecting four Hindu pilgrimage sites through 890km of roads.
Authorities have not said what caused the cave-in which trapped the men as they were nearing the end of their night shift but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
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