Indian rescuers yesterday said they had paused efforts to reach 41 men trapped in a collapsed road tunnel after a cracking sound created a “panic situation” over the possibility of a further cave-in.
Excavators have been removing debris from the under-construction road tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand since Sunday last week after a portion of the tunnel the workers were building collapsed.
The week-long rescue efforts have been slowed by the continued falling of debris as well as repeated breakdowns of the crucial heavy drilling machines.
The government’s highways and infrastructure company, the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corp Ltd (NHIDCL), said a sudden cracking sound late on Friday had “created a panic situation in the tunnel,” sparking fears the roof could cave in.
Operations were then halted amid the possibility of “further collapse”, NHIDCL said in a statement.
Rescuers have been communicating with the trapped men using radios.
The National Disaster Management Authority revised the number of people trapped to 41, up from 40.
Food, water, oxygen and medicine have also been sent to the trapped workers through a 15cm pipe, but those trapped inside are desperate, Indian media reported.
“We keep sending word in, inquiring about their health,” Mohammed Rizwan, part of the rescue team, told the Times of India. “But all of them have just one question: ‘When will you bring us out?’”
Yesterday morning, the key work of drilling through the tonnes of soil and rock to reach the men was still on hold, Uttarakhand District Magistrate Abhishek Ruhela said.
“Except drilling, other necessary work is going on,” Ruhela said.
Rescuers on Friday said that they had drilled less than halfway to where the men are trapped.
After the first drill broke down, a replacement boring machine was flown in on Wednesday on an air force C-130 Hercules military plane — but that then hit a boulder.
“The machine was not able to push further as the machine was getting lifted and the bearings of the machine were damaged,” the NHIDCL said.
The air force late Friday said that a C-17 Globemaster aircraft had flown in “almost 22 tonnes of critical equipment” for the rescue effort.
Engineers are trying to drive a steel pipe about 90cm wide through the debris — wide enough for the trapped men to squeeze through.
Some relatives of those stuck in the tunnel said they had spoken briefly to their loved ones, trapped in the dark for a week.
Vikram Singh was in tears after speaking to his 25-year-old construction worker brother Pushkar, the Times of India reported.
Exhausted, weak and desperate, Puskhar pleaded with him to tell their mother he was well.
“Don’t tell ma that I am one of those stuck here,” Pushkar told his brother, the paper reported. “Our mother will be worried if you tell her the truth.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
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