Rescuers are 16 feet away from 41 Indian workers trapped for over 2 weeks in tunnel, official says

Officials in India said Tuesday rescuers are 5 meters (about 16 feet) away from the 41 construction workers who have been trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel in the country’s north for over two weeks, raising hopes they may be freed soon.

Kirti Panwar, a state government spokesperson, said about a dozen men had worked overnight to manually dig through rocks and debris, taking turns to drill using hand-held drilling tools and clearing out the muck as they approach what is hoped to be the final stretch of the rescue operation.

Rescuers resorted to manual digging after the drilling machine broke down irreparably on Friday while drilling horizontally from the front because of the mountainous terrain of Uttarakhand state where the tunnel collapsed. The machine bored through about 47 meters (nearly 154 feet) out of approximately the 57-60 meters (nearly 187-196 feet) needed, before rescuers started to work by hand to create a passageway to evacuate the trapped workers. Authorities on Tuesday said rescuers had managed to drill through over 50 meters in total so far.

Rescue teams have inserted pipes into dug-out areas and welded them together so the workers could be brought out on wheeled stretchers.

The laborers have been trapped since Nov. 12 when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 meters (650 feet) from the entrance.

Rescuers on Sunday also began to create a vertical channel with a newly replaced drilling machine as a contingency plan.

What began as a rescue mission expected to take a few days has turned into weeks, and officials have been hesitant to give a timeline for when it might be completed.

“I just feel good. The drilling on top of the mountain is coming along perfectly, in the tunnel, it’s coming along very well. I have never said ‘I feel good’ before,” Arnold Dix, an international tunneling expert who is helping with the rescue, told reporters at the site on Tuesday.

Most of the trapped workers are migrant laborers from across the country. Many of their families have traveled to the location, where they have camped out for days to get updates on the rescue effort and in hopes of seeing their relatives soon.

Authorities have supplied the trapped workers with hot meals through a 6-inch (15-centimeter) pipe after days of surviving only on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. They are getting oxygen through a separate pipe, and more than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, have been at the site monitoring their health.

The tunnel the workers were building was designed as part of the Chardham all-weather road, which will connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites. Some experts say the project, a flagship initiative of the federal government, will exacerbate fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris.

Large numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit Uttarakhand’s many Hindu temples, with the number increasing over the years because of the continued construction of buildings and roadways.

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