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India jubilant as all trapped workers rescued from Himalayan tunnel

Published Nov 27, 2023 11:04PM ET Updated Nov 28, 2023 01:22PM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Rescue operations continue as evening approaches, where workers got trapped in a tunnel construction collapse in Uttarkashi, northern state of Uttarakhand, India, November 27, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File photo

By Saurabh Sharma

SILKYARA, India (Reuters) -Rescuers on Tuesday pulled out all 41 workers trapped for 17 days inside a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas after drilling through the debris of rock, concrete and earth to reach them, triggering jubilation across India.

The evacuation of the men - low-wage workers from some of India's poorest states - began more than six hours after rescuers broke through the debris in the tunnel in Uttarakhand state, which caved in on Nov. 12.

They were pulled out on wheeled stretchers through a 90 cm (3 feet) wide steel pipe, with the entire process being completed in about an hour.

"Their condition is first-class and absolutely fine ... just like yours or mine. There is no tension about their health," said Wakil Hassan, a rescue team leader.

The first to be evacuated, a short man wearing a dark grey winter jacket and a yellow hard-hat, was garlanded with marigold flowers and welcomed in traditional Indian style inside the tunnel by state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and federal deputy highways minister V.K. Singh.

Some walked out smiling and were hugged by Dhami, while others made gestures of thanks with clasped hands or sought blessings by touching his feet. All were garlanded and also presented with a white fabric stole by Dhami and Singh.

"I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone," Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media platform X.

"It is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait these friends of ours will now meet their loved ones. The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough."

Modi later spoke to the rescued men by phone and enquired about their condition, TV channels reported.

Federal road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari thanked rescue workers and said a safety audit of the tunnel would now be done.

NATIONAL JUBILATION

Ambulances that had lined up with lights flashing at the mouth of the tunnel transported the workers to a hospital about 30 km (18 miles) away. They are expected to travel to their home states after doctors clear them.

"We are happy and feel relieved. I have told everyone in the family that he has come out," said Rajni Tudu, whose husband Surendra was among the trapped men.

Local residents gathered outside the tunnel set off firecrackers, distributed sweets and shouted slogans hailing Mother India.

The cave-in and the ordeal of the men did not grab much attention in its first week as it happened on the day of the Hindu festival of Diwali and in the run-up to the cricket World Cup semi-finals and finals, which India was expected to win.

It however made national headlines since and there was jubilation around the country on Tuesday, with politicians, retired cricket players, business leaders, diplomats and spiritual leaders hailing the effort.

"The safety of our labourer brothers who are building India is of paramount importance. I salute all the brave men who made this difficult campaign successful," opposition leader Rahul Gandhi posted on X.

Billionaire Anand Mahindra, chairman of conglomerate Mahindra Group, said "after all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it's the humble 'rat-hole miners' who make the vital breakthrough!"

"It's a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort & sacrifice," he posted on X.

The 41 men have been getting food, water, light, oxygen and medicines through a pipe, but efforts to dig a tunnel to rescue them with high-powered drilling machines were frustrated by a series of snags.

RESCUE CLINCHED BY 'RAT MINERS'

Government agencies managing the crisis had on Monday turned to "rat miners" to drill through the rocks and gravel by hand from inside the evacuation pipe pushed through the debris after machinery failed.

The miners are experts at a primitive, hazardous and controversial method used mostly to get at coal deposits through narrow passages, and get their name because they resemble burrowing rats.

The miners, brought from central India, worked through Monday night and finally broke through the estimated 60-metres of rocks, earth and metal on Tuesday afternoon.

"There was probably no government department that was not involved, there was practically an all-of-government approach ... unlike any in the past," said Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority which oversaw the rescue.

The tunnel is part of the $1.5 billion Char Dham highway, one of Modi's most ambitious projects, aimed at connecting four Hindu pilgrimage sites through an 890- km network of roads.

Authorities have not said what caused the cave-in but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.

The tunnel did not have an emergency exit and was built through a geological fault, a member of a panel of experts investigating the disaster has told Reuters.

The Char Dham project has faced criticism from environmental experts and some work was halted after hundreds of houses were damaged by subsidence along the route.

The government has said it employed environmentally sound techniques to make geologically unstable stretches safer. It also ordered the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to audit 29 tunnels being built across India.

India jubilant as all trapped workers rescued from Himalayan tunnel
 

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