Frantic efforts for the past four days to trace the three workers trapped in the under-construction tunnel that caved-in on the Bilaspur-Kiratpur Ner Chowk section of the national highway 21 finally bore fruit on Wednesday night with the rescue teams managing to establish contact with two of the workers.
Nearly 90 hours after the tunnel collapse, engineers drilled a 50m vertical hole of four-inch diameter into the tunnel, and sent in closed-circuit television cameras to ascertain the status of the trapped labourers.
"As they called out 'Jai Mata di', they received the greeting back from two labourers Satish Kumar and Hirdaya Ram. However, there was no trace of Sita Ram, the third victim," said DD Sharma, special secretary, Himachal Pradesh disaster management cell.
The engineers from Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) and Jaiprakash Power Limited that run major hydroelectric projects in the state, and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had worked day and night to drill the 50m hole in the tunnel.
With the revelation that two workers are alive, the rescue operation has got a fillip and the rescue teams that have been working tirelessly have got the much-needed stimulus to continue the rescue operation on a war footing.
However, Bilaspur deputy commissioner Manasi Thakur Sahay said it would take another two to three days to excavate the debris and bring the labourers out. She added the rescue teams were trying to dig a 25m horizontal hole into the tunnel, but hit a rock on reaching the 24m mark.
The victims are being provided oxygen through a lateral pipe and efforts are on to provide them food through the vertical hole.
Sahay said calibrated pipe would be fitted inside the vertical hole to stop loose strata from further falling down.
Meanwhile, the engineers told HT that the thermal cameras had failed to get clear images due to boulders having blocked the way.
The boring work began on Tuesday after Sahay and superintendent of police Balbir Thakur conducted a meeting with experts from SJVN, Jayprakash group, BRO and a team from the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) to discuss coordinated efforts to rescue the workers.
However, though teams of the NDRF and army carried out a recce of the tunnel, they have returned to their stations. Sources said the NDRF lacked expertise to mitigate tunnel disasters.
The army was also called in to instil confidence among the local population that was turning jittery after the incident.
"There were some locals backed by Leftist parties who tried to stage a dharna, but we tried to convince them not to resort to politicking at a time when efforts were being made to rescue the workers," said SP Balbir Thakur.
The mishap occurred on Saturday night after a crack on tunnel's rooftop widened. The shifts of workers were changing when the tunnel caved-in. While nine of the 12 workers ran towards the tunnel's opening, three ran in the opposite direction, getting trapped in the debris.