A heavy drilling machine was airlifted from Delhi on Wednesday to replace the “failed” equipment that was being used to create a passage for 40 workers trapped in an under-construction tunnel in Uttarkashi for over 80 hours now.
The new machine landed at the Chinyalisaur helipad, over 30km from the tunnel on the Char Dham route, and was being transported by road. The replacement machine came in two parts on an Indian Air Force Hercules aircraft in the afternoon at Chinyalisaur, about two hours from the tunnel, Uttarkashi superintendent of police Arpan Yaduvanshi said.
Several colleagues of the trapped workers protested at the mouth of the tunnel on Wednesday against the “tardy” pace of the rescue work, which began after 40 labourers got trapped following subsidence early on Sunday along a 60-metre stretch.
The earlier plan had been to use an “auger machine” to drill through the rubble of the tunnel’s collapsed portion and insert steel pipes of 900mm diameter, welded together to create a long passage for the workers to crawl out. But the first drilling machine turned out to be too slow and also developed technical snags, officials said. Falling debris inside the tunnel also damaged the equipment and injured two rescue workers on Tuesday.
“The new machine, which will reach here soon, weighs 25 tonnes and has the capacity to penetrate 4-5 metres through the debris per hour. It will take three-four hours to install it and then about 12 hours to make a way through 50 metres (of debris). This is only a tentative assessment because we don’t know what kind of obstruction will come in between,” National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd director Anshu Manish Khalkho said.
A rescuer who identified himself as Bhaskar, an employee of the National Disaster Response Force, told reporters at the entrance of the tunnel on Wednesday morning: “We couldn’t move forward because of some technical issue with the (earlier) drill machine. The company involved in the construction work of the tunnel is bringing a new machine from New Delhi.”
An Uttarakhand government media release in Hindi, issued on Wednesday, said: “A high-power drilling machine in place of the previous drilling machine is arriving from New Delhi to Chinyalisour, the nearby airbase…. It will push the steel pipes through the debris.”
The press note said oxygen was being blown through a compressor machine into the tunnel and small packs of eatables were being sent by creating air pressure. “Conversation is going on with the stranded people through walkie talkie and as per the information received, they are all safe.”
Workers chanted slogans at the mouth of the tunnel on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway, protesting over the “slow” pace of the operation to rescue their colleagues.
Colleagues and relatives of the trapped labourers marched to the entrance of the tunnel after breaking two barriers and demanded that they be allowed to go inside the tunnel and see the actual situation. The police quickly shoved them away.
Khalkho said: “The labourers want to help us but there is little space inside the tunnel to accommodate so many people.”
Ganesh Mandal, a labourer from Jharkhand, said: “They had talked about Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. On Tuesday, they said they had moved from Plan A and B to C. Today, their Plan C failed. Are they working on Plan D and later on Plan E, F, G and H? We fear they will bring out the workers only when they die inside the tunnel.”
Many government officials, including Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority secretary Ranjit Kumar Sinha, had said on Monday that they had three plans ready.
“Plan A is to provide oxygen, food and medicines to the trapped labourers and keep clearing the blocked area; Plan B is to intensify the clearing work with the help of heavy machines and create an escape passage for them; Plan C is to drill steel hume pipes through the debris,” Sinha had said when Plan A was in progress and he had taken stock of the ground situation.
Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami had said on Tuesday evening: “I have talked to the relatives of the stranded labourers and assured them that the rescue work is on a massive scale. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is concerned about the incident and keeping a close watch on the situation.”
Ashok Kumar, director-general of police, appealed to people: “We should have patience. I am sure the labourers will be rescued soon.”
Prem Singh Negi, younger brother of Gowardhan Negi, a supervisor who is among the 40 trapped workers, said: “I am here since Sunday evening and have gone inside the tunnel many times. I went there this morning too. I have not seen any progress to remove the debris and bring out the workers. An employee told me this morning that they would start afresh today. They had started afresh on Tuesday also.”
“Government officials claim that they are talking to the trapped workers on walkie talkie, but it is a big lie to console us. At least three relatives of the labourers talked to them through one of the two water pipes. The rescuers are using one pipe to send food and medicines and the other to blow oxygen into the tunnel. They are depending on such primitive means. Why didn’t they give us the walkie talkie to talk to our trapped colleagues? It is not difficult to understand that they are misleading us to contain an unrest,” Prem Singh added.
A source in the government claimed the rescue operation so far had been unorganised.
“We all wish that the workers are safe but see what is happening here. Eight steel hume pipes of 900mm diameter were brought on Tuesday to drill through the debris. Since each pipe is about 6 metres long, it would cover 48 metres when pushed inside after welding them to each other. Later, five more pipes of 820mm diametre were brought. Don’t they understand that pipes of different diametres cannot be wielded together?” the source said.
Additional reporting by PTI