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India tunnel collapse: All 41 trapped workers rescued

November 28, 2023

Rescuers broke through the last meters of debris to reach the 41 workers who had been trapped for more than two weeks. A landslide had caused a portion of the Himalayan tunnel to collapse.

One of the trapped workers is checked out after he was rescued from the collapsed tunnel site in Uttarkashi in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India
All the workers will now be medically assessedImage: Uttarkashi District Information Officer/REUTERS

Indian workers rescued 17 days after tunnel collapse

Indian rescuers on Tuesday safely retrieved all 41 workers from a collapsed Himalayan road tunnel after a 17-day operation to free them.

All the workers rescued will have their health checked at a temporary medical camp set up inside the 13-meter (42.6 feet) wide tunnel.

"I am completely relieved and happy as 41 trapped laborers in the Silkyara Tunnel Collapse have been successfully rescued," Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari said in a statement. "This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years."

"We are extremely happy, no words can explain it," Musarrat Jahan, the wife of one rescued worker Sabah Ahmad, told AFP by phone. "Not only my husband got a new life, we also got a new life. We will never forget it."

How the rescue operation unfolded

Earlier on Tuesday, Indian officials announced that rescuers had begun extracting the workers trapped in the collapsed tunnel in the northern state of Uttarakhand after drilling through the debris. 

During their ordeal over the last 17 days, the men had access to essential supplies like light, oxygen, food, water, and medicines, according to officials.

On Monday, manual "rat miners" were brought in to drill through rocks and gravel by hand after machinery failed, making significant overnight progress, officials said. 

These miners specialize in a risky, controversial method often used for coal mining in tight spaces. 

The operations did, however, face setbacks in the final stages of excavation.

Police officers walk past a bulldozer as it lays down mud to flatten a road outside the tunnel where operations are underway to rescue trapped workers in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India
Rescue operations have been underway for days to save the 41 men trapped inside the tunnelImage: Francis Mascarenhas/REUTERS

One such instance occurred when a drilling machine broke after hitting a metal object, causing significant delay.

On Sunday, rescuers began constructing a vertical shaft using a new drill, requiring the removal of almost twice the amount of dirt and debris needed for a horizontal dig.

What is the Uttarakhand tunnel project?

The workers, mostly migrant laborers from across the country, had been trapped since November 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel to collapse.

The collapse occurred approximately 200 meters from its entrance, as reported by PTI news agency, citing official sources. 

When the incident happened at night, there were about 50 to 60 workers present. Those who were near the tunnel's exit managed to escape, but the others were left trapped. 

This tunnel is a part of the Char Dham Project, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The project aims to improve access to prominent Hindu pilgrimage sites and regions near the Chinese border.

The Indian government announced last week that the National Highways Authority of India will conduct a safety audit of 29 tunnels currently under construction to prevent similar incidents in the future.

India: DW talks to relatives of rescued tunnel workers

jsi, ss/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters)