Uttarakhand Tunnel: Rescuing 41, new road today


Rescuers, including geologists, engineers, tunnelling experts and geotechnical experts, have been exploring various options to evacuate the 41 labourers who are trapped inside the collapsed tunnel.


“Men & Machine Vs Mountain”- this cliffhanger of a show to save the lives of 40 entrapped labourers has been unravelling at the Silkyara tunnel collapse site in Uttarakhand‘s hilly district Uttarkashi since last Sunday.

Rescuers, including geologists, engineers, tunnelling experts and geotechnical experts, have been exploring various options to evacuate the 41 labourers who are trapped inside the collapsed tunnel.

Till Saturday afternoon, the road ahead for the rescuers turned more difficult after a loud cracking sound they heard at the site a day earlier. The drilling exercise has already come to a halt. Officials on Saturday began preparations to drill a vertical hole from the top of the hill and held out the hope that the Border Roads Organisations (BRO) road to create an alternative route to the under-construction tunnel would be ready by Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Chris Cooper, a micro tunnelling expert, has reached the tunnel collapse site on Saturday to assist in the rescue efforts, according to media reports. A chartered engineer from Australia, Chris is internationally known for delivering major civil engineering infrastructure, metro tunnels, railways, and mining projects. Tunnelling experts from Norway and Thailand among countries have also been consulted.

Rescuers have been mainly fighting a three-pronged battle-to ensure survival of the trapped labourers through continuous supply of oxygen, food, electricity, and water to them inside the collapsed tunnel; consider various options to ensure their safe evacuation, and most importantly, avoid any chance of further collapse of any other portion of the under-construction tunnel during use of heavy equipment. Any further collapse could endanger the lives of the trapped labourers.

Apart from oxygen, small food packets and drinking water are being supplied to the trapped labourers with the help of a pipe with compressed air. The labourers are also in constant touch with the rescuers through walkies-talkies they had carried inside the collapsed tunnel.

Acting on the suggestions of the experts, the rescuers had finally decided to implement the idea of inserting a Mild Steel Pipe of 900 mm diameter with the help of earth auger drilling machines to make a passage for the safe evacuation of the trapped labourers.

The first auger drilling machine, which had a comparatively low capacity, could not deliver results as per the expectation of rescuers.

Then, the Indian Air Force came into the picture after it airlifted an advanced and high-capacity American Auger drilling machine to Chinyalisaur airport in Uttarakhand on Wednesday afternoon.

Different parts of the machine were packed in three consignments. So, it took time to make the new auger machine functional after assembling the parts on the intervening night of Wednesday and Thursday. Besides, a platform was also needed to install the new machine.

By the end of Friday morning, rescuers completed the task of inserting a 22-meter pipe inside the rubble by carrying out the drilling exercise with the new auger machine. The drilling process, however, came to a halt after the bearings on the new machine got damaged. The team, involved in the rescue operation, also met a new challenge during the process of modifying the machine mounting platform. To repair the damaged bearings, they needed to modify the machine mounting platform by putting additional plates below it.

Around 2.45 pm on Friday, a loud cracking sound was heard by the rescuers while they were modifying the machine mounting platform. This triggered panic at the tunnel collapse site. With no further option and to avoid any chance of further collapse near the tunnel site, the rescuers had no alternative but to temporarily stop the pipe pushing exercise.

On Saturday morning, top officials and experts in various fields continued to hold discussions to cope with the new situation. Since the drilling process leads to constant vibration inside the tunnel, this has sparked worry in the camp of rescuers.

An extra earth auger machine, which was airlifted to Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun from Indore on Friday, was brought to the accident site by road in the wee hours of Saturday.

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William Murphy

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