MUMBAI, India — After 17 days of efforts by Indian agencies and international experts, 41 workers trapped in a tunnel under construction in the Himalayas have been rescued.
On Tuesday evening, workers crawled out of a passageway carved out of the rubble that separated them from the outside world. Family members greeted them with hugs and tears before an ambulance took the workers away. Many of them had traveled many kilometers and camped outside the tunnel during the operation.
The workers were hired by a Hyderabad-based engineering company contracted by the Indian government to build the 2.8-mile tunnel in Silkyara, a remote village in the foothills of the Himalayas. On November 12, a landslide collapsed part of the tunnel, trapping workers behind nearly 200 feet of rubble.
Within days, rescuers inserted a 6-inch pipe and established communication with the workers. This pipe was used to deliver food, medicine and other essentials to the other side. Family members used it to talk to them once a day to help lift their spirits.
Simultaneously, rescuers attempted to drill through the debris and insert larger pipes for workers to crawl through. This operation had to be interrupted several times after rocks, stones and metal contained in the debris caused the drilling machines to stop.
On Monday, a team of “rat hole miners” was sent to the site and tasked with digging the remaining 40 feet. The miners, specialized in extracting coal by digging narrow tunnels inside the mountains, achieved a breakthrough in just over a day.
The Silkyara Tunnel is part of an ambitious road network launched by India’s Hindu nationalist government. It has two main objectives: to connect four Hindu shrines in the Himalayas and to create all-weather access for the Indian army to reach the border with China.
But environmentalists have criticized the plan. They say the area is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods, and heavy roadworks could trigger more disasters.
“This (accident) probably happened because of negligence,” said Pramod Nawani, former director of the Geological Survey of India. “The place that collapsed is a fragile rock mass. When they were working in the area, they should have used (a) a suitable support system, such as an anchor bolt, truss, or concrete (to hold the rocks together). If there was a breakdown, it means the support system wasn’t there. »
In a video statement, Indian Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari admitted that there were lessons to be learned from the accident. “We will now carry out a safety audit of the tunnel,” he said.
But no matter what the audit findings reveal, infrastructure projects in the Himalayas are unlikely to stop. “It’s difficult to work in the Himalayas,” Gadkari said. “But we’ll have to find a way around that.”