Silkyara tunnel rescue shows that teamwork is key

When 41 workers were trapped in a collapsed tunnel, various government agencies across India coordinated closely to bring them out unharmed. It was an outstanding bit of collaboration.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

India may have been hugely disappointed by the loss in the cricket World Cup final on November 19, but nine days later it had an occasion to cheer again as a nation. Forty-one workers from a private company contracted by the National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation were stuck in a tunnel for 17 days due to the partial collapse of a tunnel’s roof, and were finally rescued unharmed. The preparedness and mitigation measures may have been inadequate but it was the response mechanism which ensured no stone was left unturned for the rescue. The superlative effort, which has come to be understood as the finest example of a ‘whole of government approach’ in any emergency situation, is likely to be long quoted for the innovation, devotion and leadership displayed, commencing from the PM himself. It needs some elaboration.

The fact that the incident happened in Uttarakhand’s Char Dham project will probably result in some criticism about tunnelling in the fragile Himalayan region. That is a different matter. The benefit of avoiding 26 km of movement on a treacherous road would eventually be available to the public and the Army through the Silkyara tunnel. No doubt lessons will need to be learnt through detailed technical investigations to determine the real cause of the collapse. Changes in design and material will also need to be incorporated.

However, that is not the purpose of this column. What we are examining and also extolling is the rescue effort post a disaster which could have been fatal for all those trapped. This is about one of those instances where the government machinery under the leadership of the prime minister, various organs of the state including the Prime Minister’s Office headed by the principal secretary, the home ministry which houses the Disaster Management (DM) division, the road transport and highways ministry, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and the Uttarakhand state administration—all acted in unison to optimise the response.

The tunnel under construction will be 4.53 km long. From the Barkot end, 1,750 metres have been bored and from the Silkyara end, 2,340 metres. Some 441 metres remain to be bored from the Barkot end, which remained safe. It is at the Silkyara end where just 200 metres inside the portal, a 60-metre-long segment of the roof collapsed on the tunnel floor and completely blocked access to the 2-km-long constructed portion from the Silkyara end. Forty-one evening shift workers were trapped between the debris near the Silkyara end and the unbored portion at the Barkot end. In effect, almost 2,000 metres inside were available to the workers.

The 60 metre-long debris segment comprised a complex mix of iron webbing, rods and concrete. The conditions were challenging and progressively became even more so. By divine intervention, or however one takes it, the power cable did not snap, thus facilitating continuous lighting. The four-inch compressed air pipeline also remained intact and became the initial lifeline. It was through this that the first contact was established to confirm the safety of the workers. This pipeline was used to send survival rations and some medicines in the initial days. A six-inch pipeline was eventually bored, creating a passage for water, cooked food, fruits and a communication line. This line was used for speaking with relatives and perhaps for the first time in India, psycho-social advice was given to each worker by qualified professionals flown to the site.

The rescue effort as it progressed acquired the status of virtual war planning. With directions from the highest level in government that no effort or expense was to be spared, it became clear that a single method of rescue by boring through the debris would not be sufficient. The principle of ‘redundancy’ was employed right from the outset. That meant boring mini-tunnels from different directions into the mother tunnel and extracting the workers. At least two top-down boring efforts—one perpendicular to the tunnel and one more horizontal effort by blasting from the Barkot end—were planned and one was undertaken. A sixth option involving a side drift system was to be undertaken by the Army’s Madras Sappers once space was made available.

This meant a nation-wide hunt for suitable drilling equipment. From as far as Gujarat, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, gigantic machinery was dismantled and placed in multiple modes of transport—the Indian Air Force’s C-17 transport aircraft, flatbed railway rolling stocks, and large trucks. Surface transport was provided through green corridors, even delaying the high-priority Shatabdi and Vande Bharat passenger trains. State authorities in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and UP coordinated the move with the DM division and the NDMA. The preparatory work of road construction to the tunnel top and the seating for the huge machinery was undertaken by the Border Roads Organisation.

Online discussions with renowned tunnel experts around the world led to good advice and a few flew to India to render advice on the ground. The priority effort undertaken was the horizontal boring from the Silkyara end with an American auger that had drilling and pipe-pushing capabilities. Initially, 22 metres were bored unimpeded, but severe obstructions were encountered. However, these were overcome. With frequent visits of senior ministers, the principal secretary to the PM, and the virtual camping of the minister of state for road transport at the site, decision-making was simplified. The PM’s directions to ensure the fullest transparency about efforts and their success and failure led to daily media briefs, including several one-on-one video and audio bytes.

At 45 metres the auger’s stamina ran out, with its drill broken by debris. With the option of vertical drilling also resorted to, the services of a team of ‘rat miners’, otherwise known as manual jack pushers, was acquired. They surprised the nation and the world by their unique capability to manually bore around 13 metres and fix and weld steel pipes—all this after cutting and extracting the broken auger parts. The final access to the trapped workers was created by the manual effort, and the National Disaster Response Force with its various extraction improvisations finally got the 41 workers to safety, much to the nation’s relief. A unique and outstanding bit of teamwork facilitated from the highest to the lowest levels and watched with great interest internationally made India achieve this.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

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