Silkyara Tunnel collapse | Drilling halted after laying of 24 metres of pipe in Uttarkashi

NHIDC said the stoppage was due to disturbing “vibrations”; the drilling machine has reportedly been damaged, and a backup is being flown in; there are an estimated 50 metres of rubble to drill through

November 17, 2023 11:57 am | Updated 08:15 pm IST - Uttarkashi

Rescue and relief operations under way after a portion of a tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway collapsed, in Uttarkashi district, on November 17, 2023.

Rescue and relief operations under way after a portion of a tunnel under construction between Silkyara and Dandalgaon on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway collapsed, in Uttarkashi district, on November 17, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

Rescue efforts to drill an 80 centimetre-wide pipe to rescue 40 workers stuck in a tunnel under construction at Uttarkashi were halted on November 17 due to “vibrations” that were disturbing the “surface equilibrium”, according to Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation, which is building the tunnel. There are also reports that the machine used to drill the hole has been damaged, and Mr. Khalkho confirmed that a backup is being flown in.

The workers have been stuck since Sunday morning after rubble fell from the roof of the excavated section, trapping them behind several metres of rocks and possibly metal equipment. It was initially estimated that the drilling could be done at a speed of five metres an hour, but the possibility of further rubble and the risk of breaking the pipe has made authorities proceed at a slower pace.

“There’s always danger of more rubble falling,” Mr. Khalkho said. “We were working continuously. We have stopped now and will continue shortly.”

Backup drilling machine

Responding to reports that the current auger machine, used to drill the hole, had been damaged, Mr. Khalkho said: “Even if you pop a tire when driving, you just swap it out and keep going. A 17-50 horsepower machine is running in the tunnel.” He added that a “backup” auger machine of a different brand is being flown in from Indore by the Indian Air Force.

The pipe had been inserted 22 metres into the rubble earlier on Friday morning, with two metres jutting out of the rescue workers’ side. Mr. Khalkho did not indicate whether any progress has been made since then, despite repeated questioning by journalists. It is estimated that there are over 50 metres of rubble, though detailed surveys have not yet been done.

Support for workers

While Uttarkashi’s surface temperature is a chilly 12 degrees celsius on most evenings after an early sunset, the stuck workers are not experiencing the cold weather, he said. “When I enter the south side of the tunnel [on the rescuers’ side], I take my jacket off because it is warm inside,” Mr. Khalkho said. “The workers are in an enclosed space with adequate ventilation, so for them it is closer to room temperature.”

Doctors and a psychologist are on call at the site to interact with the workers and evaluate their health. “As far as sustenance is concerned, a human can survive without water or food for six days,” Mr. Khalkho said, “That is a biological fact. However, the workers have been getting food and water since rescue efforts started.”

The tunnel is being built as a part of the Char Dham Pariyojana, to link the shrines at Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri in Uttarakhand, providing faster road connectivity. The tunnel provides a planned 4.5 km road passage between Silkyara and Barkot, reducing road transport time from Dharasu to Yamunotri by about 20 km and travel time by about an hour, according to a 2018 statement from the Union Cabinet, when the project was approved.

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