Uttarakhand tunnel rescue: After 422 anxious hours, families rejoice
As the quaint mountain town of Kotdwar in Uttarakhand was lighting up on Diwali day, Jaimal Singh Negi’s life descended into darkness.
As the quaint mountain town of Kotdwar in Uttarakhand was lighting up on Diwali day, Jaimal Singh Negi’s life descended into darkness. That afternoon, he received a call that said his vivacious younger brother, Gabbar Singh Negi, was trapped alongside 40 other men inside an under-construction tunnel in Silkyara. Distraught, the 63-year-old rushed to the open tunnel face. As night fell on the Himalayas that evening, and hulking excavators roared up the slope to break through the wall of rocks, debris and mud that blocked the men, Jaimal steeled himself, hoping against hope.
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He’d need that conviction; Over the next 422 hours, through the peaks and troughs of the painstaking operation, as the rescuers repeatedly found their hopes dashed by failing machines or falling mounds of debris, Jaimal never left the hillside. “I spent all my time, day and night, outside the tunnel, hoping for my brother to come out,” he said.
At 8.30pm on Tuesday, his faith paid off as rescuers pulled out Gabbar and all 40 of his fellow workers through a steel chute that cut through the rock face. He was shaken, but unhurt and in high spirits, happy at the glimpse of the twinkling night sky after 17 days. “It’s like a Diwali for us today. I have finally been able to see him,” Jaimal said, his voice choked with emotion.
Scenes of jubilation played out at the mouth of the tunnel on Tuesday evening as drained relatives of the trapped workers beamed, hugging their loved ones as they were wheeled out. The rescued men were welcomed as heroes with wild cheers and marigold garlands, as officials greeted them after 422 harrowing hours spent inside the tunnel. “Finally, God heard us,” said Sunil, a resident of Jharkhand.
The 51-year-old Gabbar was the foreman of the 41-member construction team that found their egress blocked by a sudden collapse of the tunnel at 5.30am on November 12. Even as frenetic rescue operations commenced outside, Gabbar realised the importance of keeping the morale high in the team. He used his two-decade-long experience in construction, rescue officials said, to call for calm and keep everyone’s confidence high – even when rescue operations faltered.
That sliver of cheer helped many of his fellow workers survive the anxious 17 days inside the tunnel as rescuers struggled to make headway through the inclement terrain. Manpreet Lal, for example, told his father Chaudhary Lal that the company of fellow workers and Gabbar’s leadership helped him brave the ordeal. “It was a dark place and we were not able to sleep at night. We were constantly talking to each other,” Lal told his father.
To keep the morale high, Gabbar even promised his fellow workers that he would be the last to come out of the tunnel, said Negi. “He was last to come out. Even when he came out, he was smiling,” said Negi, while travelling with him in the ambulance.
Chaudhary, a resident of Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, said spoke to his son twice in the last two weeks. “He is out finally…The mountain finally opened its lap today to let my son and others out. I have brought clothes for him, I want to see him in washed clothes,” he said. Chaudhary has lost his elder son in 2022 in an accident at a construction site in Mumbai.
Among the 41 workers were 15 from Jharkhand, eight from Uttar Pradesh, five each from Bihar and Odisha, three from West Bengal, two each from Assam and Uttarakhand and one from Himachal Pradesh.As the rescue appeared imminent earlier in the day, families in Silkyara were allowed inside the tunnel with their belongings – so that they could travel with their loved ones to the medical centre.
Moments after he came out of the tunnel, labourer Bisweswar Nayak of Odisha spoke to his wife Sukanti and mother over video, waving at them. “I am all fine. I am now going to the hospital and will speak to you tomorrow morning,” he said. Father to twin daughters, the 38-year-old has worked as a labourer in tunnel construction for 22 years.
In Kuldiha village of Mayurbhanj district, 25-year-old Raju Nayak’s grandmother broke down after seeing her grandson on video. “Once he comes back home, I will not allow him to go anywhere. We had stopped cooking ever since he was trapped. I want to see him as soon as possible,” she said.
Though elated, many families said the anguish of the past two weeks had scarred them – enough to ask their loved ones to never return to a tunnel site again.
“I had been asking Gabbar to leave this work of tunnel construction. He would say life is anyway risky and never pay heed to me. After this incident, I would once again try to convince him. Hopefully, he listens to me now,” said Jaimal.
Chaudhary was more determined. “I come from a very poor background and to reach here, I took a loan of ₹9,000 on my wife’s jewellery. I know our family’s total dependence on Manjeet but I can’t allow him to work in tunnel construction anymore,” he said. “If anything happens to him, I won’t survive.”