Rescue operations at the Silkyara tunnel were delayed for hours on November 23 as the drilling machine ran into an iron lattice girder, a structural element of the tunnel which had been buried in the debris and had to be removed manually. The machine only managed to bore through two more metres of debris by 6 p.m. on November 23, frustrating efforts to reach the 41 workers trapped by the collapse of the tunnel since November 12.
By November 22 evening, when the obstacle was struck, the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), which is building the tunnel, had drilled horizontally through about 45 metres of debris from the Silkyara end, completing about 70% of the distance to the workers, Uttarakhand Secretary Neeraj Khairwal said.
“The machine encountered a metallic object [a lattice girder rib] and hence, pushing of the pipe stopped. Rescue team members Pradeep Yadav and Balwinder crawled inside the pipe and cut off the pieces of metal stuck at the mouth of the pipe using gas cutters. This task was completed at 2 a.m. on Thursday (November 23),” he added.
Vibration halts drilling again
Officials involved in the rescue operation said that the machine was given some cooling time before the pushing of a ninth pipe started again at 1 p.m. on November 23. This pipe had bored through an additional 1.8 metres when a minor vibration was noted; at that point, the authorities again decided to slightly draw back the auger machine, in order to re-assess the force to be applied. Drilling was yet to restart at the time of filing this report. Fabrication of a protective canopy for the drilling machine is underway, officials said.
“We are working with utmost caution and managed to push the pipe upto 45 plus 1.8 metres,” Mr. Khairwal said.
National Disaster Management Authority member Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain told journalists in Delhi that “if no hindrance comes in the way and the auger machine continues to function at its speed of four to five metres per hour, then I can say that maybe tomorrow during the day, you can receive the good news tomorrow. But we never know how many hurdles are there on our way,” he said, adding that it would take another four to five hours to actually rescue the trapped workers and bring them out after the completion of the horizontal drilling.
Families pray for rescue on November 24
As the work inside the tunnel remained suspended for hours, anxious relatives of the trapped workers kept praying for a faster rescue. Maharaj Singh Negi said that his brother Gabbar Singh Negi, a supervisor trapped inside the tunnel, had survived many hurdles in his life, offering hope that he will survive this crisis as well.
“He was trapped in a landslide previously. He never loses hope. Even inside the tunnel, when I speak to him, he is busy making other workers smile and keep them motivated. You mark my words that he will come out in the last, after the rescue of all his friends is done,” he said, expressing hope that he would see his brother on November 24.
The sounds of the machines mixed with bells and conches on November 23 evening, when local villagers brought the palanquin of Baukhnaag Devta, the deity revered in this part of Uttarakhand, to the site. The workers inside the tunnel raised their hands in prayers and took a brief break to pray before restarting the work.
Freshly cooked food and fruits were inserted into the tunnel at regular intervals by the rescue teams, using a 150 mm diameter pipe pushed in during the initial days of the rescue operation.
CM monitors progress at site
Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami arrived at the tunnel site at noon on November 23, accompanied by the Union Minister of State for Road Transport, Highways, and Civil Aviation, General (retd) V.K. Singh. Both leaders spoke to the trapped workers, with the help of a camera set up inside the tunnel. The CM asked the workers about their health and assured them of rescue in the quickest possible time.
The CM has been camping in Uttarkashi since November 22 evening, and a temporary CM camp office has been set up in the Matali area to closely monitor the rescue operation.