Engaged in a real race against time, Indian rescue teams on Tuesday saved the 41 workers trapped for 17 days in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel, where ambulances were leaving the entrance to the site.
“I am totally relieved and happy that 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel collapse have been rescued,” Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said.
The minister praised "well-coordinated efforts" which enabled "one of the most important rescue operations in recent years".
The rescued men were draped in orange flower garlands in celebration as they were greeted by state officials, according to government photos.
“We thank God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them”
A crowd applauded their exit from the tunnel while emergency vehicles, flashing lights on, prepared to leave the entrance to the site, where workers had been stuck since the collapse of part of the structure under construction in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, on November 12.
Family members of the workers who were waiting to finally see them confirmed that the exhausted men had been taken out of the tunnel, pulled through the 57 meters of a steel pipe on stretchers specially equipped with wheels.
During the day, rescue teams managed to install the last section of the steel pipe to free these 41 workers.
Photos of the rescuers, posted on social media, showed men smiling and making victory signs as drilling was completed through the tons of earth, concrete and rubble that was blocking workers.
As night fell and the wait continued until the first man came out, relatives of the workers no longer hid their relief.
“We thank God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them,” Naiyer Ahmad, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad is among the trapped workers and who has been camping at the site for more than two weeks, told AFP.
Sudhansu Shah, who was also camping while waiting for the release of his younger brother Sonu Shah, said his relatives had started celebrating the end of his ordeal. “We are really hopeful and happy.”
After repeated setbacks, military engineers and miners worked manually to break through rock and rubble to clear the final stretch and reach the men who had been imprisoned for 17 days.
Teams of three people took turns digging and inserting the last parts of the steel tube, just wide enough to allow one man to pass through and allow workers to evacuate.
When one was digging, a second removed the debris by hand and the third placed it in a cart reaching the exit, explained Tuesday Rajput Rai, a drilling expert, quoted by the Press Trust of India agency.
The men also had to cut out a tangle of metal rods which obstructed their progress.
“Heroism is most often a matter of individual effort and sacrifice”
Since the collapse of the tunnel, rescue efforts have been complicated and slowed by falling debris and successive breakdowns of drills, crucial machines for rescuing workers.
Another vertical drilling had also been started from the top of the wooded hill overlooking the tunnel, a complex excavation operation above the men in an area which has already suffered a collapse.
The men had survived for more than two weeks thanks to the delivery of air, food, water and electricity through a conduit through which an endoscopic camera was inserted. This camera allowed their families to see them last week, for the first time.
Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra paid tribute to the men who squeezed through the narrow steel pipe to manually clear the rocks. “It’s a comforting reminder that ultimately heroism is most often about individual effort and sacrifice,” he wrote on the social network X.
The workers were trapped in an area inside the tunnel, measuring 8,5 meters high and some two kilometers long.
The Silkyara tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway project, dear to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, designed to improve connections with four of the most important Hindu sites in the country and also with the border regions of China.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)