In India, rescuers began manually digging Monday in hopes of reaching 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel in the country’s north for more than two weeks.
Kirti Panwar, a state government spokeswoman, said about a dozen men were taking turns digging through the debris with hand-held drilling tools for what was hoped would be the home stretch. They had dug almost a meter (3.2 feet) and still had up to 11 meters (36 feet) to go, he said.
Rescuers also began creating a vertical channel with a recently replaced drill, officials said. They drilled horizontally for a week, but the mountainous terrain proved too difficult for the machine, which failed several times before being irreparably damaged Friday, officials said.
The work in progress aims to create a passage to evacuate trapped workers. Rescue teams inserted pipes into the dug areas and welded them together so the men could be evacuated on wheeled stretchers.
Rescuers worked through the night to remove parts of the broken drill stuck inside the pipes so that manual excavation could begin, said Devendra Patwal, disaster management official at the site.
India tunnel collapse: Trapped workers worried as drilling problem delays rescue, relative says
Workers have been stuck since November 12, when a landslide in Uttarakhand state caused part of the 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse. to build approximately 200 meters (650 feet) from the entrance.
What started as a rescue mission expected to last a few days turned into weeks, and officials have been reluctant to give a timetable for its completion.
The vertical excavation, which began on Sunday, required the rescue team to excavate about 106 meters (347 feet) of earth and debris. The length is almost double the roughly 60 meters (196 feet) they needed to dig horizontally from the front.
They might also face risks or problems similar to those they encountered earlier that damaged the first drilling machine attempting to drill into rocks. High-intensity vibrations from drilling could also cause more debris to fall.
Patwal said they were ready to face all kinds of challenges, but hoped they would not encounter strong resistance from the mountain.
“We don’t know what the drill will have to cut. It can be loose soil or rocks. But we are ready,” he said.
As the rescue operation enters its 16th day, uncertainty over its fate grows. Some residents offered Hindu prayers near the tunnel.
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Some officials hoped the rescue mission would be completed last week. Arnold Dix, an international expert assisting the rescue team, however, told reporters he was confident the workers would be back with their families by Christmas, suggesting they were prepared for a longer operation.
Most of the trapped workers are migrant workers from across the country. Many of their family members traveled to the site, where they camped for days to keep up with rescue efforts and in hopes of seeing their loved ones again soon.
Authorities provided hot meals to trapped workers through a 15-centimeter pipe after days of surviving only on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. They are receiving oxygen through a separate pipe and more than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, are on hand to monitor their health.
The tunnel that workers were constructing 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 high Himalayas, where several cities are built on landslide debris.
Large numbers of pilgrims and tourists visit Uttarakhand’s numerous Hindu temples, with their numbers increasing over the years due to continued construction of buildings and roads.
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