Six-inch pipe reaches tunnel workers in boost to rescue op

By, Silkyara (uttarkashi)
Nov 21, 2023 06:30 AM IST

Rescuers have installed a second "lifeline" pipe to provide food and water to workers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi, India. The workers have been trapped for nine days after a portion of the tunnel collapsed. Rescuers are now focusing on creating passages for the workers to crawl through and planning the best method to extract them. The workers' health is being closely monitored, and a camera will be inserted into the second pipeline to establish two-way video communication.

Some respite was finally expected for the workers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel in Uttarkashi as rescuers managed to install a second “lifeline” pipe on Monday to provide food and water to the 41 people, and have a better means of communication, on the ninth day of an operation that has become an ordeal for the families and colleagues of the workers.

Rescue operations underway in Uttarkashi on Monday. (ANI)
Rescue operations underway in Uttarkashi on Monday. (ANI)

Rescuers were also looking at five sites, including at the top of the mountain, where passages big enough for humans to crawl through can be created, officials coordinating the operation said.

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“The next step is the more vital one and the most important — that’s to get them out intact, happy,” Colonel Deepak Patil, who is in charge of the rescue efforts, said.

The construction workers have been trapped since last Sunday when a portion of the under construction 4.5-kilometre tunnel on the National Highway between Siklyara and Barkot collapsed. The tunnel is part of the busy Chardham all-weather road, a flagship project connecting various pilgrimage sites.

Since then, the authorities have been following two concurrent objectives of the multi-agency operations.

The first was to find a method the extricate the trapped men which has seen various setbacks over the last nine days. The last such attempt to drill from the Silkyara side using powerful auger machines was stymied by rocks that were damaging the equipment. On Friday afternoon, when the drilling was stopped, the machine had only breached 22 metres of the 65-metre-thick wall of debris.

The second objective was to ensure the health of the workers — who have repeatedly complained of fever and nausea — does not deteriorate by providing them with food, water and essential medicines, and communicating with them.

The first such pipe, four inches wide, which was supplying water to the construction site, was being used as lifeline for the past eight days. A second wider pipe was successfully placed on Monday.

The “breakthrough” came at around 4.30pm, when the 6-inch-wide pipe reached the workers at a depth of 53 metres. This new pipe runs parallel to the 4-inch-wide pipe that was already supplying smaller food items like nuts and roasted chickpeas. The pipe was also the only medium of communication with the workers, with rescuers using a funnel to get messages across.

Two previous attempts to install the wider “lifeline” pipe failed because of “solid rock” coming in the way, Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (NHIDCL), said.

“On the second attempt, our drill bit hit the rock and went upwards even as it was about to reach the other side with trapped workers. We then went ahead cautiously and were successful this time. It was our priority to establish another lifeline. The next step is to take out the drill bit and establish communication lines,” he said.

The tunnel was being built under the supervision of NHIDCL.

An endoscope camera is being mobilised from Delhi and will be inserted in the second pipeline to assess the situation in the 2-km-wide area where the workers are trapped and establish two-way video communication, Khalko said.

“The endoscope camera is being mobilised from Delhi. We will use the camera to see the trapped workers and they will also be able to see us. I hope we will be able to gather additional information about them and the area around,” he said.

As of Monday evening, the rescuers on site were looking for ways to supply the workers with food.

“A diet chart is being prepared with the help of doctors and food is being prepared by caterers. We are bringing plastic bottles that are cylindrical in shape with a big mouth through which food will be passed. We will send fruits like apple, bananas, and cooked food items like dalia, khichdi,” Colonel Patilsaid.

The progress came on a day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami took stock of the relief and rescue plans.

Briefing the media about their conversation, Dhami said the Prime Minister has assured all equipment needed for the operation is being arranged by the central government, and that measures must be taken to keep the morale of the stranded men high.

“The workers trapped in the tunnel are safe and oxygen, food and water are being provided to them. Agencies are working for relief and rescue operations after taking the opinion of experts,” Dhami said.

Dhami also announced that the state government will bear the expenses of the family members who arrive in Uttarkashi to inquire about those inside. “During this period, if relatives of workers come to inquire about their condition, the government will make arrangements for their travel, accommodation and food. Responsibility for this has been entrusted to senior officers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) had also been asked to push a third vertical lifeline, but said they put the plan for hold for now. “We had been asked to push the vertical 8-inch pipe downwards. But, as an additional lifeline has already been pushed through the debris in the collapsed portion, it was decided in a meeting to put the plan on hold for now,” a RVNL official who didn’t wish to be named said.

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