The district administration and the construction company officials had never anticipated the herculean task awaiting them when the news of the three men trapped in the tunnel due to a collapse first broke out on September 12. The rescue operation that lasted nine days has cost Himalayan Construction Company, the firm undertaking the construction of the tunnel on the Bilaspur-Kiratpur-Ner Chowk national highway 21, a whopping Rs 5 crore.
The company immediately swung into action after the disaster and made efforts to clear the debris manually, even as the district administration sought the help of the army, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Border Road Organisation (BRO) and Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVNL).
“We had thought they will be out in a few hours as the entire workforce of the company was deployed at the site to help with the rescue efforts immediately,” said Gurmeet Singh, the project director of Himalayan Construction Company said.
“We realised the gravity of the matter only when there was no headway in the manual rescue work as muck continued to come down from the roof and the walls of the tunnel,” Singh said. The next challenge was to establish contact with the trapped workers that the rescuers were able to do on September 16 by drilling a 47-metre vertical communication channel, and were relieved on finding two of the three workers responding to their call.
At that point a decision was taken to call in a heavyduty hydraulic rig as smaller machines would have not been able to dig the required hole. The mammoth machine arrived the very next day from Jaipur and was put to work within a few hours.
However, rescue efforts received the first jolt on September 18 when the rig developed a technical snag. But it was fixed within a few hours and the rescue work resumed at full swing, only to be impeded again as the rig again broke down on the very next night, bringing the entire operation to a complete halt.
“We were facing difficulties at every step. It was a big challenge that we have overcome today, even as there was no standard operating procedure specified for such disaster,” said Bilaspur DC Manasi Sahay Thakur.
Nine days in darkness
The labourers were part of a group of 20 that was working on tunnel no 4 of the Kiratpur-Nerchowk four-lane road venture when a cave-in blocked the entrance on September 12. While the other men managed to escape, three were trapped.
The men survived for nine days on biscuits, dry fruits, glucose and water supplied to them by the rescue team through a narrow duct after contact was established with the help of a remote camera and microphone dropped into the cavity.
The rescuers had to battle torrential rain, sliding debris and equipment snag before success came on Monday.