Silkyara tunnel rescue ‘dangerous’, may take a ‘long time’: NDMA

With the auger machine broken and stuck in debris, horizontal drilling in Uttarkashi tunnel has not moved in 48 hours; vertical drilling not expected to start in next 24 hours as approach road is too narrow for machines

November 25, 2023 10:34 pm | Updated November 26, 2023 09:45 am IST - SILKYARA

The entrance of the Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel from the Barkot side during the rescue operation of 41 workers trapped inside the underconstruction tunnel, in Uttarkashi, on November 25, 2023.

The entrance of the Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel from the Barkot side during the rescue operation of 41 workers trapped inside the underconstruction tunnel, in Uttarkashi, on November 25, 2023. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Multiple hurdles are now delaying the rescue of 41 labourers, who have been trapped inside the trapped Silkyara tunnel for two weeks now. With no sign of rescue in the next one or two days, the kin of the trapped workers are getting restless, even as Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami promised the workers that their safe evacuation was the government’s “top priority”.

For the last 48 hours, there has been no forward movement in the efforts to drill through the tunnel horizontally, as the auger drilling machine stopped working after it reached the 48-metre mark on Thursday, with its blades stuck in the debris, which is full of rock and iron girders. A plasma cutter machine is being brought in from Hyderabad, likely by Sunday, to cut out the stuck auger.

Also read: Uttarkashi tunnel collapse updates on November 25, 2023

The rescue teams then plan to manually drill through the last 10 metres of debris to reach the trapped workers, a “dangerous” process, which is likely to take a “long time”, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Vertical drilling ‘risky’

Efforts to drill vertically through 86 metres of mountain have also been stalled, as the approach road to the drilling site is slightly too narrow for the movement of the gigantic vertical drilling machine; the Border Roads Organisation is now working to widen the road. However, officials also warn that vertical drilling is risky as it can cause vibrations in the already fragile mountain; they are mulling ways to do it cautiously.

A portion of the tunnel, under construction on Uttarakhand’s Char Dham route, had collapsed on November 12 following a landslide, trapping the workers inside.

‘Herculean task’

NDMA member Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain told journalists that there has been some breakage in the auger machine. “Advanced machinery is required to cut and remove the broken parts of the auger stuck inside the tunnel, and the assistance of the Indian Air Force is being sought to airlift this machinery,” he said. After these stuck parts are cleared, the auger machine will be used only to push forward the 900 mm rescue pipe and not for the actual drilling, which means that the process will be slower than earlier, Mr. Hasnain said.

Workers at the rescue site warn that manual drilling is a herculean task, as the drilling will have to be done from within the cramped 900 mm pipe, with very little oxygen or space, and too much dust and debris.

‘Dangerous process’

With regard to vertical drilling, Mr. Hasnain said the machinery has to be first transported to the drilling site above the roof of the tunnel. “Once this machinery is placed there, vertical drilling from this point can begin. This machine will have to traverse a depth of 86 metres, and then break the tunnel crust which is beneath,” he said. A third option was a drift tunnel, he added.

Noting that the rescue process was “dangerous”, the NDMA member said that whichever method is used, “everyone will need to keep their patience and not put pressure on the rescue workers”. Efforts are being made to maintain the morale and motivation of the relatives of the trapped men, as this rescue operation may go on for a “long time”, he added.

Top priority: CM

The Chief Minister also told journalists that all possible options are being explored. “PM Modi is concerned about the situation and the condition of the workers. We are expecting and hoping that the operation is completed as soon as possible,” Mr. Dhami said.

He entered the tunnel to take stock of the rescue work and check the quality of food being sent to the traped workers. Using a temporary communication channel, he assured them that rescue efforts are being undertake on a war footing. “The whole country stands with you. The top priority of the Central and State Government is to evacuate all of you safely,” he said.

He told journalists that all the trapped workers are fine and hopeful, but the families of the workers claimed otherwise.

Uttarkashi tunnel rescue | Families hope to find light at the end of the tunnel

Depressed workers and kin

Devender Kissu could not hold back his tears after speaking to his brother Virender, who is stuck inside, on Saturday. He told The Hindu that his brother has stopped eating as he is now facing depression.

“He told that I should go back home as my work is getting hampered. Even inside the tunnel, he is thinking about family. It’s the toughest time of our life and we dont know how long it will last,” said Mr. Kissu who is not considering any return to his village in Bihar until Virender comes out.

A BSNL landline facility has been set up inside the tunnel to keep the trapped workers connected to their family members, and the telecom firm is also planning to send in a handset, using the 6 inch pipe through which food is being sent in.

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