In what is being dubbed India’s one of the most challenging and dangerous rescue operations, the 41 workers trapped in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand were brought out on Tuesday – ending their 17-day ordeal that began on the morning of Deepavali.
A jubilant mood prevailed outside the tunnel since morning when the rescue teams announced that the rat-hole miners, in coordination with the Army, had managed to manually dig through 55 metres of debris horizontally. Just another two metres was left to reach the trapped workers then. As the family members of the trapped workers started gathering outside the tunnel, the officials asked them to pack their bags as the breakthrough was expected to be achieved by the end of the first half of the day.
At 2 p.m., Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami took to X and said: As a result of the immense grace of Baba Baukh Nag Ji, prayers of millions of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams engaged in the rescue operation, the work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed. Soon all the labour brothers will be taken out.”
As the families of the workers who were awaiting for this day for over 400 hours amid multiple setbacks, went back to their rooms in the nearby hotels and homestays to make preparations to leave Silkyara along with their kin who were expected to brought out by evening, another announcement came from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in Delhi at 4.15 p.m. that the breakthrough is yet to be achieved.
After the NDMA’s presser, the hopes of the family members again dimmed as they were confused by the discrepancies in the statements given by the authorities.
Around 7 p.m., the rescue teams again started moving inside the tunnel and the ambulances were brought to the spot.
Around 7.30 p.m., the State government made the announcement that the first worker was being brought out of the tunnel. Within a little over an hour, all 41 men were rescued.
The workers, who were garlanded, then got into the waiting ambulances, which took them to a temporary healthcare centre set up for them in Chilyanisaur, around 26 km from the tunnel. Prior to that, a team of doctors conducted their preliminary examination.
The NDMA said the workers would be kept under medical observation for 48-72 hours. The State government also offered to drop the families of the trapped workers, back to their houses free of cost.
“Patience and hard work won,” Mr. Dhami wrote on social media as the rescue operation was successfully completed. He announced an initial compensation of ₹1 lakh for each of the workers.
Inspiration for all, says PM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the workers over phone and enquired about their well-being, officials said. He took to X to thank the rescue teams for their grit and perseverance. “The success of the rescue operation of our brothers in Uttarkashi is making everyone emotional. I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone. I wish you all well and good health,” he said.
He added that it is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait the trapped workers will be able to meet their families. He also appreciated the patience and courage of the families of the workers.
“I also salute the spirit of all the people associated with this rescue operation. Their bravery and determination has given new life to our labour brothers. Everyone involved in this mission has set an amazing example of humanity and teamwork,” the PM said.
Congratulating the teams and experts involved in the operation, President Droupadi Murmu said she felt relieved and happy at the rescue. “The nation salutes the workers’ resilience and remains grateful to them for building critical infrastructure even at great personal risk,” she posted on X.
Well-coordinated effort, says Gadkari
Minister of Road Transport & Highways, Nitin Gadkari, congratulated the rescue teams on the successful operation.
“I am completely relieved and happy as 41 trapped laborers in the Silkyara tunnel collapse have been successfully rescued. This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years. Various departments and agencies complemented each other despite facing numerous challenges. Tireless and sincere efforts by everyone, coupled with prayers from all, have made this operation possible. The dedicated endeavours of the rescue teams have yielded favourable results. I express gratitude to each agency and individual involved in this rescue operation. Deep appreciation for the international rescue experts, administrative officers, and the Uttarakhand government for their swift and effective response,” he added.
Expressing happiness at the rescue, Congress general secretary (communications) Jairam Ramesh posted on X: “The entire country salutes the remarkable resilience and fortitude of the workers themselves. The nation also applauds the dedication, skill and perseverance of the entire rescue team and thanks them wholeheartedly.”
A battle won
Devender, one of the rat-hole miners from Bulandshahr who was part of the 12-member team, said the moment he pushed away the last layer of debris, he could see the workers standing on the other side, waiting. “When I jumped to their side, they hugged me and cried. They also gave me almond and cashews. I felt I have won a battle for my country,” he added.
Time for sweets
As the rescue operation ended, locals gathered outside the tunnel, sang songs and distributed sweets. Special prayers were also offered at a small makeshift temple of Baba Baukh Naag, a local deity known as the guardian of Silkyara.
Ravinder Negi, brother of Gabbar Singh Negi, one of the rescued workers, said the family was waiting for his return to celebrate Deepavali. “Humari Diwali to ab hogi,” (our Deepavali will happen now), he added.