The operation to rescue 41 labourers from the Uttarkashi tunnel has been on hold since 9pm on Friday as the heavy-duty machine flown in from Delhi has allegedly broken down.
Information given out by the government suggests that only 35 hours of productive rescue work has been possible since the workers got trapped over 150 hours ago, on November 12 morning.
The US-made auger machine deployed to drill through the rubble of the partially collapsed Silkyara tunnel and push in pipes one after the other to prepare an escape passage developed a snag on Friday night and stopped working following a loud cracking sound.
Another high-performance drilling machine, airlifted from Indore (Madhya Pradesh) on a Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, arrived in Silkyara on Saturday. Its three parts are being assembled, officials said from the spot.
The number of trapped workers has been revised to 41 from 40 with Deepak Kumar, a labourer from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, added to the list after his family arrived at the spot.
Sources in the Uttarakhand government said experts had surveyed the mountain and concluded that vertical drilling for about 172 metres was an option, with the horizontal drilling done so far making little progress after cutting through 24 metres of debris.
A team that includes Mahmood Ahmed, additional secretary, ministry of road transport and highways; Mangesh Ghildiyal, deputy secretary, PMO; geologist Varun Adhikari and
engineering expert Armando Capellan has arrived in Silkyara to review the rescue operation.
About 60 metres of the under-construction tunnel collapsed at a distance of 270 metres from its mouth on the Silkyara side around 5.30am on November 12. Initially, local authorities tried to remove the debris with the help of earth movers but soon realised that this was unsafe as more loose rocks started dropping.
A light drill machine was deployed on Tuesday to create a pathway for cement pipes through the debris. But the machine stopped working after three hours.
A heavy drill machine was flown from New Delhi and began work at 9am on Thursday to drill a passage through which steel hume pipes, welded together, would be pushed in. Work continued for 24 hours till 9am on Friday.
Another six hours of drilling took place till 3pm, but had to be stopped when a
big rock came in the way.
Work resumed at 7pm and continued for two hours till 9pm, when the heavy drill machine developed a snag. The time spans, as disclosed by government officials over the past six days, add up to 35 hours of productive rescue work.
Haridwar Sharma, brother of a trapped labourer, who had arrived in Uttarkashi from Bihar on Friday, told reporters on Saturday morning that the trapped labourers feared that the government was giving them false hope.
“While talking to me through a pipe, my younger brother Sushil Sharma, a hydra machine operator, told me that he and the other trapped workers were losing hope,” he said.
“He asked me angrily to tell the government officers present here to declare honestly that the labourers would have to die inside the tunnel. Sushil asked me whether they would ever be able to come out. I couldn’t say anything.”
Mohammad Rizwan, a rescue worker with the state government, said: “We are sending food packets and medicines inside through a water pipe that is 80mm in diameter. We are now preparing to somehow drill through a pipe of 125mm diameter to supply bigger food packets.”
Uttarkashi district magistrate Abhishek Ruhela said: “We are trying to make arrangements to supply more food items.”
A media release from the government indicated that the mental health of the trapped men, besides their physical condition, might be deteriorating. “We are supplying Vitamin C, D, Becosule Z and anti-depressants to the trapped workers,” it said.
Those gathered at the mouth of the tunnel said they had heard a deafening sound before the big drill machine stopped working on Friday night.
However, Ashu Manish Khalkho, director of the NHIDCL which is constructing the tunnel through the Navayuga Engineering Company Ltd, had said on Friday that the machine was “fine”.
He had added that another machine was being brought from Indore “just as a backup to avoid any further delay”.
“The second machine has its own cooling period. We are also assessing the possibility of creating a vertical escape route,” he had said.
Sources said that Cris Cooper, a mining engineer from the UK who was working on another government project in Uttarakhand, had been involved in the rescue
operation. “I am here to help the people involved in the rescue operation,” Cooper told reporters.
Sukh Ram, father of trapped labourer Ram Milan, said the rescue effort had not progressed since Friday night. “I have been here since Thursday. Around 10pm on Friday, all the machines came to a standstill. The rescue workers have been sitting idle since. They are not doing anything today,” he said.
A source claimed the government had asked a priest to set up a makeshift temple at the place where the Baukhnaag temple existed in Silkyara before it was removed by the company constructing the tunnel.
Those waiting near the tunnel for the labourers said on Saturday that the priest was seen installing a small wooden temple and sprinkling water in all directions.
“Ram Nayan Vats, who was invited by the construction company on November 14 to perform a puja, was seen installing a wooden temple near the mouth of the tunnel,” said an eyewitness who didn’t want to be named.
Vats didn’t speak to reporters on Saturday but he had interacted with them on November 14 and said that he had been brought there by the construction company to perform a puja so that the rescue operation would succeed.
Dhanveer Chand Ramola, a villager, said: “The Baukhnaag temple stood near the opening of the tunnel in Silkyara. The construction company had ignored our request to protect it. They had demolished the shrine.”
“It is good that they are rebuilding it. We hope that the trapped labourers will be saved soon,” said Ganesh Prasad, another local.
Mala Rajya Laxmi, the BJP MP from Tehri Garhwal under which Uttarkashi falls, had said during a visit to the spot two days ago that the temple would be rebuilt soon.
Additional reporting by PTI