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World News

Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Families face agonizing wait after rescue delay


  • By Samira Hussein
  • Reporting from Uttarkashi


Chaudhary went to the tunnel site to be closer to his son, who is trapped inside.

When Chaudhary realized his son Manjit was one of 41 construction workers trapped in the collapsed tunnel, he traveled nearly 600 km (372 miles) from his village of Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh, to be closer from him.

Chaudhary, 50, has been at the tunnel site for 11 days. He lives with men who know his son and sleeps in barracks set up for workers.

Two years ago, he lost his eldest son in a construction accident in Mumbai. He says he can’t deal with the grief of losing another son.

“I pray to God…please don’t take this son away from me. All I want is for my son to come out. That’s my prayer. That’s my last wish.”

A landslide near Silkyara, a remote village at the foot of the Himalayas, collapsed part of the tunnel two weeks ago, trapping workers. Rescue work was delayed by the breakdown of a drill.

Chaudhary, who goes by only one name, is one of several family members who have traveled here.

Chanchal Singh Bisht hails from a neighboring village. His cousin, Pushkar Singh, 24, is also trapped in the collapsed tunnel.

Nervous when he arrived at the site, Chanchal did not know what to expect. When he was finally able to speak with Pushkar via walkie-talkie, he felt relieved.

“He said, ‘I’m fine, you can go home. I’ll come home, I’m safe here, I have what I need here.'”


Chanchal says his cousin, Pushkar, is very brave for staying positive despite being trapped for two weeks

For some families, the ability to talk with loved ones indoors is a lifeline.

A woman was walking on the road away from the tunnel, after speaking with her husband. She did not give her name.

“He’s worried,” she said, “wondering how long he’s going to be there and if something is going to happen (to get them out). He hasn’t even eaten today.”

The men receive regular deliveries of food – daal, roti, fresh vegetables and fruits – through a small pipe, and authorities say the group is in good health.

In the first days after the accident, on November 12, Chanchal didn’t have much confidence in authorities, saying he didn’t think they knew what they were doing. But seeing the progress made earlier this week, he became more optimistic.

“I thought their initial plans were weak. Now they are working on a war footing and they should be out soon.”

But that was before the last setback on Saturday.

Video caption,

Watch first video of tunnel workers trapped in India’s Uttarakhand

The machine used to drill a hole large enough for men to crawl inside got stuck and broke on debris.

The machine is now completely broken and can no longer be repaired.

Rescue efforts are suspended until emergency crews can remove him from the tunnel. Then, instead of replacing the device, they will manually remove the remaining debris.

This is a major disappointment for the authorities, who estimated on Wednesday that the rescue was imminent. In anticipation, four ambulances were parked at the mouth of the tunnel, and dozens more along the narrow road leading to the construction site.

Removing debris manually will take more time than if using a machine. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami was pressed by the media for some sort of timetable for the men’s release. Instead, he reiterated that the government’s priority was to get them out safely.

As plans continue to evolve, family members like Chanchal and Chaudhary have no choice but to wait. Both are already thinking about what will happen when their loved ones are away.

“When we bring him home, then we will celebrate Diwali,” Chanchal said. “Because he was in the tunnel for Diwali. So we’ll do it again.”

Chaudhary, however, just wants to hold his son.

“I will hug him, God has answered my prayers, everyone’s prayers have been answered. But I can only say that when he is gone. But I will be happy, everyone will be happy. He should just go home.”

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