The Centre brought a tunnel safety expert from Australia on Monday as 41 construction workers completed 200 hours inside a blocked mountain tunnel in Uttarkashi without certainty of life and deprived of natural light, sufficient food and oxygen and battling mental stress.
Officials said that half the rescue workers deployed to remove the debris had stopped drilling, fearing for their own safety, after they noticed cracks on the side of the tunnel and felt vibrations on its roof.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, tried to instil confidence among the rescuers after reaching the spot where a 57-metre stretch of the Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel had collapsed at 5.30am on November 12, about 270 metres from its mouth.
"We are going to get these men out. Great work is being done. Our whole team is here and we are going to find a solution and get them out," Dix said.
But he stressed the importance of the rescuers' safety, too, warning that it was crucial to study the mountain and the tunnel to avoid any possible "trap".
"It is important that not only the men (to be) rescued but also the men who are rescuing are safe. The team here is fantastic; the plans are looking fantastic. The work is very systematic," he said.
Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, said that half the workers had come out of the tunnel on Friday after hearing a loud thud, an earthquake on Thursday having already left them shaken.
"Half the workers are working there; the rest don't want to go inside," he said.
Dix said: "We are rescuing those 41 men and we will not let anyone get hurt while doing it…. It is looking very positive as we have the best experts in Himalayan geology with us."
Dix has in the past received the Allen Neyland Australasian Tunnelling Society’s biannual award and a Committee Service Award from the National Fire Protection Association of the US.
The Australian was seen in a video paying his respects at a newly erected makeshift temple near the mouth of the tunnel at the suggestion of a member of the Indian rescue team before walking towards the mountain.
Success has so far eluded the rescuers. Efforts to push four Hume pipes of 6m diameter each through the rubble to create a passage were halted at 9pm on Friday when the drill machine developed a snag.
So far, two water pipes, 4 inches in diameter, are being used to supply the trapped labourers with oxygen and small packs of food, vitamin tablets and antidepressants and to allow them to interact with their families and the rescuers.
“We have inserted another pipe of six inches (diameter),” Khalkho said late on Monday evening. “Our priority is to send more food, such as pieces of apples and bananas, after consulting doctors. We have been sending small packs (of dry fruits, gram, jaggery and medicines) but we need to provide them with a staple diet.
“We — the experts, doctors and their family members — are talking to them every 2-3 hours. We will also be able to see the trapped labourers through the new pipe.”
He said the Defence Research and Development Organisation had sent two robots, weighing 20kg and 50kg, that the rescuers had planned to send inside the tunnel through a gap between its roof and the debris.
But, he added, he was unsure whether the robots would be able to move over the sand.
Khalkho said the rescuers, who had identified two fresh spots for vertical and perpendicular drilling, were waiting for the necessary drilling machinery to arrive. “They are being transported through road as they couldn’t be airlifted,” he said.
However, two of the four trucks bringing parts of the heavy drill machine required for the vertical drilling met with an accident on their way from Dehradun. The other two trucks arrived on Monday afternoon.