Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: Rescuers make 15-metre progress through vertical drilling

Vertical drilling, one of the several chalked-out options to bring out 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel, started on Sunday afternoon.
A view near the entrance of the Silkyara Tunnel during a rescue operation of 41 workers trapped inside it, in Uttarkashi district, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Photo | PTI)
A view near the entrance of the Silkyara Tunnel during a rescue operation of 41 workers trapped inside it, in Uttarkashi district, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Photo | PTI)

UTTARKASHI: With vertical drilling underway to further aid the rescue of the trapped workers in the Silkyara tunnel, the rescuers managed to make progress over a distance of 15 meters of drilling since the process began this afternoon.

The National Disaster Management Authority on Sunday said that work is on to retrieve broken parts of the auger machine and start manual digging while vertical drilling has also started to bring out 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi for the last 14 days.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Member Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain told reporters here that all efforts are going on to rescue the workers.

Considered as the second best option, the work on vertical drilling started around noon and 15 meters of drilling has already been completed, Hasnain said.

After 86 meters of vertical drilling, the crust of the tunnel will have to be broken to bring out the trapped workers, he added.

The member also mentioned that as many as six plans are being executed to rescue the workers but the best option so far is horizontal drilling under which 47 meters of drilling have been completed.

Machines for undertaking sideways drilling (perpendicular drilling) are expected to reach the rescue site during the night, Hasnain said.

Two locations were identified for the vertical drilling, and both are on the Silkyara side of the high-altitude under-construction tunnel, a portion of which caved in on November 12.

SJVN, a public sector undertaking company involved in hydroelectric power generation and transmission, has just started vertical drilling work on the top of the tunnel atop the hill, the 15th day of continued rescue efforts.

As a second option, vertical drilling work has also been started in another part on top of the tunnel to create rescue space for workers trapped. This portion of the tunnel has access to electricity and water.

Multiple agencies are working on the rescue efforts. In the latest, the Indian Air Force has also joined in as it flew critical DRDO equipment to Dehradun.

Meanwhile, work is on to retrieve broken parts of the auger machine which encountered obstacles during the horizontal drilling, the NDMA member said, adding magna and plasma cutters are being used for the purpose.

Once the broken parts are retrieved, manual digging of 15 meters will be done to reach out to the trapped workers though it may take time, he said, stressing that all concerned agencies are working to make the rescue operation a success.

A plasma cutter was flown in from Hyderabad on Sunday to cut and remove parts of the auger machine stuck in the rubble inside the Silkyara tunnel.

A complete disengagement of the machine is necessary for the officials to resume the rescue work which involves manual pushing of pipes through rubble to prepare an escape passage.

A part of a drill machine has also been sent atop the hill, above the tunnel, for vertical drilling.

A unit of Madras Sappers, an engineer group of the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army, arrived at the site on Sunday to assist in the rescue operations.

Blades of the auger machine drilling through the rubble of the collapsed Silkyara tunnel to prepare an escape route got stuck in the debris on Friday night, forcing officials to consider switching to other options that could drag the rescue operation by several days, or even weeks.

On day 14 of the multi-agency rescue mission, officials shifted focus to two alternatives -- manual drilling through the remaining 10- or 12-metre stretch of the rubble or, more likely, drilling down 86 metres from above.

The rescue effort began November 12 when a portion of the under-construction tunnel on Uttarakhand's Char Dham route collapsed following a landslide, cutting off the exit for the workers inside.

The workers are in a built-up two-kilometre stretch of the tunnel.

They are being sent food, medicines and other essentials through the six-inch wide pipe.

On Tuesday, rescuers managed to insert an endoscopy camera into the tunnel. The first visuals captured on that device showed the trapped workers had ample space inside the tunnel for them to move around.

The visuals gave new hope to worried relatives, some of whom were camping outside the site of the collapsed tunnel structure.

Meanwhile, international tunnelling expert Arnold Dix, who has roped in the rescue project, said on Sunday that there was no chance of any further collapse in the area where the incident took place.

"It may have been an unusual situation occurring here where the class of rock changes. It has to be investigated. The area that collapsed hadn't collapsed before; it wasn't even given any clue that it was going to collapse before. So, it is a part of the challenge for us--what is it about the ground here, this mountain that caught us on the back foot," he said.

Also, as part of efforts to relieve the stress and anxiety of the workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has stepped in to provide them with a landline through which they can talk to their families.

(With inputs from PTI and ANI)

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