India tunnel rescue efforts paused over fears of cave-in

Police and officials stand at the entrance of the under construction road tunnel that collapsed in Uttarkashi district of India's Uttarakhand state on 17 November, 2023, as resuce operations continue to reach the 40 men trapped inside the tunnel. Indian rescuers said on 17 November they had drilled less than halfway through the debris to reach 40 men trapped in a collapsed tunnel for nearly a week.

Indian rescuers said Saturday they had paused efforts to reach 40 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 after a portion of the tunnel the workers were building collapsed.

The weeklong 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, NHIDCL, said a sudden cracking sound late 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.

Food, water, oxygen and medicine have also been sent to the trapped workers via a six-inch-wide (15-centimetre) 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?'"

Local map of the Silkyara tunnel construction site in northern India's Uttarakhand state where 40 workers have been trapped since 12 November.

'Don't tell Ma'

On Saturday morning, the key work of drilling through the tonnes of earth and rock to reach the men was still on hold, senior local civil servant Abhishek Ruhela told AFP Saturday.

"Except drilling, other necessary work is going on," Ruhela said.

Rescuers said Friday that they had drilled less than halfway to where the men are trapped.

After the first drill broke down, a replacement earth-boring machine was flown in on Wednesday on an airforce 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," NHIDCL added.

The airforce said late Friday that a C-17 Globemaster aircraft had flown in "almost 22 tonnes of critical equipment" for the rescue effort.

NHIDCL director Anshu Manish Khalko warned Friday that the rescue operation "may take time."

Engineers are trying to drive a steel pipe about 90 centimetres (nearly three feet) 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."

Also Read