Took turns to sit on excavator, hung from rods to keep warm: How Uttarakhand workers survived inside tunnel
In the seven hours that they were trapped inside a tunnel immediately after a flash flood in Tapovan on Sunday, and before they were rescued around 5.45 pm on Sunday, the dozen men kept themselves warm by exercising, swapping warm clothes, staying close to each other, and they kept themselves hopeful by reciting Urdu couplets and singing songs -- first romantic and then sad ones -- as time ticked away.
Iron rods protruding out of the tunnel’s walls, an excavator and the network connection in one of their mobile phones kept their hopes alive before a team of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) broke in through an emergency door and rescued them.
The dozen men, masons, electricians, and engineers, walked into the tunnel around 8am on Sunday to carry out construction work. But for the flash flood, they would have emerged from the tunnel for their lunch around 12.30pm.
“Around 10.45, we saw some men running away from the tunnel and shouting to us to rush out. Before we could react, the tunnel entrance was flooded,” said Chitra Bahadur, one of the four masons from Nepal trapped in the tunnel.
The next moment, their ears were assailed by the roaring sound of the flood.
At that point, these men were about 350 metres away from the tunnel’s entrance.
Nine of them hurriedly scrambled to find iron rods jutting out of the tunnel walls and used them to climb higher along the walls of the six-metre-high tunnel as the water level rose by the second.
Two other men were in an excavator that was pushed away almost five metres from its position by the force of the water, but the vehicle temporarily kept them above the water. Moments later, from their perch they saved the life of Satish Kumar, an electrician who was swept away by the torrent of water.
“As I was passing by the excavator, the two men used their feet to stop me and then hauled me inside,” said an injured Kumar, who was left with a single shoe that he decided to dump.
But the inside of the excavator was not safe for too long. As the water rose three-four metres inside the tunnel, the excavator driver kept using a jack in the vehicle to raise it higher. Eventually, the three men were compelled to climb the excavator’s roof until their heads were almost hitting the roof.
And so, within five minutes of the flash flood, nine men were dangling from iron rods and three men were atop the excavator. The tunnels entrance was blocked by debris from the flood.
“When the entrant was blocked, we were hardly able to see around us. We thought of trying to swim through the water and debris, but it was impossible, ” said Kiran Vishwakarma, another labourer from Nepal.
Soon, breathing was becoming a little difficult, but it was the cold that was unbearable. Over the past week, the temperatures in Joshimath have been plummeting to three and four degrees below zero.
It was here that these dozen men worked as a team to survive the bitter cold, exacerbated by their soaked clothes.
“In batches of three, we began taking turns to sit atop the excavator for about 10 minutes each. The rest of the men would continue to hang from the rods,” said the excavator driver, Rakesh Bhatt.
Sitting on the excavator allowed the men to exercise to keep themselves warm. “We would clap, we would rotate our hands vigorously in the limited space that we had. We rubbed the hands of each other and tried to blow hot air on the man next to us. Sometimes the men on the excavator hugged each other or sat in each other’s laps. We were doing everything to keep warm,” said Vinod Singh Pawar, a welder.
Those hanging from the rods did pull-ups in the hope of generating heat in their bodies.
“But all that exercise was not enough. Sometimes we felt like our legs didn’t exist. So, we urinated on our legs to keep them alive. We would control our bladder and urinate periodically so that we could keep warm for longer,” said Satish Kumar.
Then, those with dry sweaters passed them around so that every one had at least a few minutes of warmth regularly.
More important was to keep their spirits up, so the men sang Hindi and Garhwali songs and urged each other to recite couplets.
“I sang a Garhwali song, the lyrics of which are about coming across a person who appeared to belong to my region. All of us knew the song and we sang in unison as it made us feel we belonged to each other,” said Srinivas Reddy, a geologist from Andhra Pradesh.
Then, they moved to romantic songs. “We sang the ‘Dil hai ki maanta nahi’ (the heart doesn’t agree) song, among others. As hopelessness began to set in, we sang sad songs,” said Virendra Kumar Gautam, a senior foreman, who remembers singing ‘Lambi Judaai’ (prolonged separation).
They also fantasised aloud of hot water baths and drinking hot tea. The idea was to keep everyone engaged and hopeful, said Gautam.
Amidst all this, the men decided to move towards the entrance that was fully blocked, but offered their only hope of escape. So, they abandoned the excavator, divided themselves into two groups and used the rods to move forward.
“It took us over two hours to move 300 metres. Some of us were using the torch in our phones to show the path to others,” said Gautam.
Since water wasn’t gushing into the tunnel anymore and the level had reduced, they again began taking turns to sit on two large boulders which had been washed into the tunnel.
Around the same time, there were two encouraging signs in quick succession.
“The mud at the entrance of the tunnel was falling and that led to a tiny opening, about two inches wide. We could finally see natural light and knew that we would have oxygen,” said Gautam.
Soon after, welder Pawar found a network in his phone. “It was the BSNL SIM card that I would never use for calling. Usually, network inside the tunnel was limited to five metres inside, but my BSNL was working,” said Pawar.
Pawar first called an NTPC official to update him about their location and then some local villagers who knew the topography. “We all felt the urge to call our relatives, but we controlled ourselves. We didn’t know how long we would be stranded inside and needed the phone to be working,” said Pawar, adding that the device was at 30% charge at that time.
Outside, meanwhile, ITBP officers, who were struggling to reach the tunnel’s entrance, were alerted about an emergency gate made of concrete and iron mesh. They worked on that gate to finally break into the tunnel after which ropes were used to pull out the men.
Since they were suffering from hypothermia, they were quickly washed with hot water, given necessary injections and rushed to an ITBP hospital in Joshimath.
Dr Jyoti Khambra, an assistant commandant at the hospital, said that the vitals of the men had recovered to normal and they were ready to be discharged on Tuesday. “They are all fit to work again,” said Khambra.
The rescued men may have little choice but to return to work, wherever they can find it, but for now their worry is reaching their homes. “All my money was washed away. I lost my phone. I have nothing. I don’t know how I’ll get back home,” said Sant Bahadur, one of the rescued men from Nepal.
While a video of Gautam raising his arms in happiness on being rescued was widely shared on social media, the rescue didn’t really end well for one of them.
Soon after they were brought to the hospital, one of these men, Lal Bahadur, got to know that his brother hadn’t been as lucky as him. “The body of Lal’s brother was found in the barrage of the hydrothermal plant. He left the hospital as soon as he could walk,” said Sant Bahadur.