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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

After more than 2 weeks, rescue arrives for workers trapped in Indian tunnel

A photo released by the Uttarakhand State showed Pushkar Singh Dhami, right, the chief minister of the Indian state, greeting a rescued worker on Tuesday.

By Mujib Mashal and Suhasini Raj

After a 17-day effort to free dozens of Indian construction workers trapped inside a Himalayan road tunnel, rescuers finally cleared a path through debris Tuesday and pulled the men out, ending an excruciating wait for the workers and their families.

The rescue operation had hit repeated roadblocks, with officials trying multiple ways to reach the 41 stranded men in the northern state of Uttarakhand, including the deployment of miners using hand tools after a drilling machine had failed.

Pushkar Singh Dhami, the state’s chief minister, said the rescued workers were sent for health checks before they reunite with their families. The first rescues came close to 8 p.m. local time. While officials had said the process to get them all out could take about three hours from the first rescue, all the men were removed to safety in less than an hour.

“The workers had decided among themselves that the youngest would exit first, and that the team leaders would leave last,” Dhami, the state’s chief minister, said at a news conference after all the men were rescued.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who officials said had been closely monitoring the efforts, thanked the rescue teams for giving the trapped workers “a new life.”

“The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough,” Modi said.

For the families of the workers, scattered across the poorer corners of India, it was a moment of celebration.

Bidang Narjary, 16, in the northeastern state of Assam, said she erupted in tears of joy when she heard her father, Ram Prasad Narjary, on the phone after he made it out of the tunnel. He had been working on the project for the past six months.

“His first words to me after getting out were ‘Don’t worry daughter, I am fine,’” Bidang Narjary said. “All this while I was so nervous about my father. What would we do without him? I kept praying, ‘Dear God, please help my father get out,’ because that’s all that was in my control. I don’t have words for how happy we are.”

The workers’ ordeal, followed closely in India with live updates on television and social media, cast a spotlight on concerns long raised by environmental experts about large-scale construction projects in the fragile Himalayan mountain range. Experts say the country’s environmental reviews of such projects are weak and prone to political interference.

The men were building a tunnel that is part of a major road project on a Hindu pilgrimage route when a landslide early Nov. 12 trapped them behind about 60 meters, or about 195 feet, of debris.

Early Tuesday afternoon, as officials reported that drilling had reached the final few feet separating the rescuers from the trapped workers, videos from outside the tunnel showed a bevy of activity. Dozens of rescue workers in orange jumpsuits carried ropes and ladders, parked ambulances moved toward the tunnel, and people offered prayers at a small makeshift roadside temple in the distance.

Before the workers were pulled out, relatives had been told to be ready, as one would be allowed to accompany each worker to the hospital.

“I will accompany Sanjay when he gets out. I feel at peace at the moment. We feel energized and happy to be told the ordeal will be over soon,” Jyotish Basumatary, the brother of Sanjay Basumatary, one of the trapped men, said by phone from outside the tunnel.

In the hours after the landslide Nov. 12, officials were able to establish communication and confirm the workers were safe. A small pipe running into the tunnel was used to get them food, water and oxygen. About a week into their saga, an endoscopy camera sent through the pipe captured initial images of the workers, easing the concerns of their families.

But over the course of the two-week operation, predictions from officials that the rescuers would soon reach the workers had proved to be overly hopeful.

Initial drilling efforts were hampered by additional falling debris. And by Day 13, the rescue effort appeared in disarray as an American-made auger machine broke down with less than 20 meters to go in the drilling. As workers tried to extricate it, officials initiated backup plans, including one in which workers began drilling vertically from the mountaintop.

New machines were flown in from different parts of the country. But, in the end, the rescue effort — which also involved international tunneling experts — found success in manual drilling by “rathole miners” in the final stretch of the path that had been mostly cleared by the auger machine.

In India, rathole mining is a term for a method in which workers dig very small tunnels to reach coal.

The rescue operation faced hiccups even in its final hours, threatening to derail the growing confidence of family members who waited in anticipation of their relatives being pulled to safety.

In a statement around 2 p.m. local time, Dhami, the chief minister, had declared the work of putting in the pipe through which the workers would be rescued as complete. But hours later, Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority, said about 2 meters, or 6 feet, of drilling still remained to be done. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, he said that “we are near a breakthrough but not yet there.”

As night fell on the mountains, and temperatures dropped, the fate of the rescue remained unclear. It wasn’t until closer to 8 p.m. when the activity picked up again at the site of the tunnel that the first of the men were rescued.

Most of the workers trapped in the tunnel were from India’s poorer states, such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam, places with high levels of migration as workers seek employment. Family members said they were working for salaries of about $250 a month.

“I am feeling very good — my heart, today, is tall like the mountain,” the father of one worker told television reporters outside the tunnel, pointing with his head to the mountain that had trapped his son.

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