DEHRADUN, India: Indian rescuers were battling on Monday to free 41 men trapped in a road tunnel for nine days, as they prepared to dig an entirely new shaft after previous efforts failed.
Excavators have been removing earth, concrete and rubble from the under-construction tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand since November 12, after a portion of the tunnel collapsed.
But rescue efforts have been slowed by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of the crucial heavy drilling machines, with the air force having to twice airlift new kit. Engineers had been trying to horizontally drive a steel pipe through the debris, just wide enough for the increasingly desperate men to squeeze through at least 57 metres of earth and rock that block their escape.
But drilling on that route was paused on Friday, after a cracking sound created a “panic situation”, officials said. Teams were now preparing to dig the new shaft from above, forcing workers to cut an entirely new track up to the top of the forested hill high above for the heavy equipment needed.
Officials estimated the proposed shaft would need to be 89 metres deep to reach the men. Experts have warned about the impact of extensive construction in Uttarakhand, where large parts of the state are prone to landslides.
“Every effort is being made,” Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said in a statement Monday, insisting the “workers trapped in the tunnel are safe”. He said he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the crisis.