A general view of the tunnel mouth as rescue workers continue to operate at the site of an under-construction tunnel following a collapse, on the Brahmakhal Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarkashi, India, 18 November 2023. EFE/EPA/ABHYUDAYA KOTNALA

Rescuers struggle to pull out 40 workers trapped in Indian tunnel for nine days

By David Asta Alares

Colleagues of trapped workers wait near a tunnel under-construction tunnel following a collapse, on the Brahmakhal Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarkashi, India, 18 November 2023. EFE/EPA/ABHYUDAYA KOTNALA

New Delhi, Nov 20 (EFE).- Rescuers began working on alternate escape routes on Monday to pull out 40 workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel near a mountain pass in India’s Uttarakhand state for over a week.

Disaster management officer Jay Panwar told EFE that they had to suspend the rescue efforts after a boring machine developed a snag amid the fear of a new collapse as a portion of a tunnel started caving in on Saturday.

“We are working to repair this portion of the tunnel and the machinery. We may start this evening or tomorrow,” Panwar told EFE.

At the same time, rescue teams launched parallel plans to dig a vertical tunnel above the area where the workers were trapped.

The authorities have begun constructing a road and a platform to install heavy machinery, Panwar said.

Another option on the table is to drill an escape tunnel from the other side of the mountain, the official said. But it would require digging through 80 meters of rock.

The miners were trapped on Nov. 12 while working on the tunnel, part of a highway being built to connect four major Hindu religious sites in the ecologically sensitive Uttarkashi district of the northern state known for its pilgrimage tourism.

Rescue teams managed to contact the trapped workers on the same day and confirmed that nobody was injured. Food and oxygen are being supplied through pipes.

Initially, the authorities tried to reach the workers from the tunnel entrance, removing piles of debris with the help of excavators, but fears of new collapses put an end to that plan.

They then transported heavy machinery to dig a hole and fix a pipe almost a meter in diameter.

However, repeated breakdowns forced tunnel boring machines to be replaced several times, delaying the work and even paralyzing it over the weekend.

On Sunday, India’s Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said the rescue could be over in a couple of days “if the excavator worked properly.”

The accident and slow rescue efforts have sparked opposition criticism and protests by co-workers of those trapped.

“The accident occurred due to inexperience, negligence, and corruption in the project construction,” Indian National Congress leader Yashpal Arya wrote on the social network X (formerly Twitter).

The opposition leader said the options, like building an adit tunnel, being worked out now should have been put in place when the road construction began.

He said dozens of lives were “endangered because of a large-scale corruption.”

He said the opposition and the people had “morally supported” the government and the disaster management agencies in the hour of crisis, but their patience was wearing thin now.

Blazes, building collapses, and similar accidents are frequent in India, often due to the poor state of infrastructure and lack of maintenance, factors fueled by corruption and illegal practices.

At least 1,630 people died in 2021 due to the collapse of structures, according to the latest annual report on accidental deaths and suicides in India. EFE