Two “rat-hole” miners on Monday crawled 45 metres into a channel of 32-inch-diameter Hume pipes bored into the debris in the collapsed Uttarkashi mountain tunnel, with army engineers assisting them from outside.
The miners — experienced in going down “rat holes” or narrow pits to extract coal — carried a handheld drill machine, hammer, trowel, shovel and a shallowpan (tasala) for an “inspection”, officials said.
They said the actual “manual drilling” to remove the remaining 12 metres or so of the barrier of debris, behind which 41 labourers have been trapped since November 12 morning, was expected to start on Monday night.
With all kinds of advanced technology failing in the past fortnight, the authorities have brought six rat-hole miners, employed with a private company, from New Delhi. They “know how to work in the most precarious situation and in narrow tunnels”, an Uttarakhand government source said.
An army team of “20 to 25” sappers, including engineers, is “assisting the civil administration in vertical and manual horizontal digging to reach the stranded labourers”, an official at Army Headquarters in New Delhi said.
A former colonel who didn’t want to be named told this newspaper that the entire operation should have been handed over to the army a long time before. “What will a group of only 20-25 (army) people do?” he said.
One of the miners, asked by reporters what he would be doing, said: “We will go inside the (channel of Hume) pipes and cut the debris and other hard material there. There will be one miner with me who will keep loading the removed material in a trolley and the army engineers will keep pulling that out with a rope.”
He added: “Two of us can remove one metre of debris in one hour. However, it may take longer if we have to cut through any mass of concrete, girders or lattice.”
The miner said a team of two miners would go inside, wearing oxygen masks, and work continuously for about an hour before being replaced by another team of two.
“We will try to work round the clock because we are labourers and those 41 trapped inside are also labourers. We have to help them,” he said with a grim expression. The other miners standing beside him too looked stony-faced.
“We are from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh but have been taking part in the construction of tunnels and sewer lines of about 2ft diameter across the country over the past few years. We have worked in some coal mines in the past,” another miner said.
The authorities decided on manual drilling after an auger machine, which had helped insert the channel of Hume pipes 49m into the 57m barrier of debris, got mangled by a mass of steel lattice in the rubble on Friday.
The auger’s fragments were removed on Sunday night with the help of plasma, laser and gas cutters. But the process required the last 4m of the Hume pipe channel to be cut, reducing its length to 45 metres, a state government official said.
“A team of sewer-line cleaners has also been called from Mumbai for any operations that might be needed,” the official said.
Mahmood Ahmed, managing director of the National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, said work was continuing on alternative escape routes too.
“Vertical drilling (from the top of the mountain) has been done up to 30 metres out of the 86 metres required to reach the labourers. There was some water seepage (during the drilling), but we have done the required dewatering,” he said.
“There are some rocks in our path; we will remove them slowly.”
P.K. Mishra, principal secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Ajay Kumar Bhalla, Union home secretary, arrived at the spot on Monday. Mishra interacted with the trapped labourers through a communication device set up by the BSNL on Sunday night.
A video released by the Uttarakhand government shows Mishra asking the trapped men about their health, food supply and the availability of light. The labourers’ answers cannot be clearly heard.
General view of rescue operations after workers got trapped in a tunnel construction collapse in Uttarkashi, northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 27, 2023. Sourced by The Telegraph
At one point, Mishra says: “Yes, this is why you should be a little careful…. We are trying to bring you out as soon as possible. We are using every possible method.”
Glare on company
After the Congress, CPIML state secretary Indresh Maikhuri has demanded that a case be registered against the private company constructing the tunnel.
“The private company is blacklisted in Maharashtra. Some labourers had died there in August when a girder-launching machine fell during the construction of the Nagpur-Mumbai Expressway, Phase 3. A case was registered there against the company, which is a habitual offender,” Maikhuri said.
Prabha Naithani, an advocate, has filed a case with Uttarakhand High Court seeking immediate action against the company for allegedly putting the lives of the workers in danger.
“A tunnel shouldn’t collapse in any situation. Obviously, the company involved in its construction didn’t follow the specifications,” she told reporters.
Additional reporting by Imran Ahmed Siddiqui