Officials in India say they are on the verge of rescuing the 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed Himalayan tunnel for over two weeks in the country’s north after rescuers drilled their way through debris to reach them.
The workers are likely to be pulled out on Tuesday through a passageway made of welded pipes which rescuers pushed through dirt and rocks.
“Soon all the laborers brothers will be taken out,” Pushkar Singh Dhami, the chief minister of Uttarakhand state where the accident occurred, posted on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
Kirti Panwar, a state government spokesperson, said about a dozen men had worked overnight to manually dig through rocks and debris, taking turns to drill using hand-held drilling tools and clearing out the muck in what he said was the final stretch of the rescue operation.
Rescuers resorted to manual digging after the drilling machine broke down irreparably on Friday while drilling horizontally from the front because of the region’s mountainous terrain.
Authorities on Tuesday said rescuers had managed to drill through over 50 metres (164 feet) in total so far. Rescue teams have inserted pipes into dug-out areas and welded them together so the workers could be brought out on wheeled stretchers.
The workers have been trapped since November 12 when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5km (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 metres (656 feet) from the entrance.
Most of the trapped workers are labourers from across the country. Many of their families have travelled to the location, where they have camped out for days to get updates on the rescue effort and in hopes of seeing their relatives soon.
Authorities have supplied the trapped workers with hot meals through a 15cm (6-inch) pipe after days of surviving only on dry food sent through a narrower pipe. They are getting oxygen through a separate pipe, and more than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, have been at the site monitoring their health.
The tunnel they were building was designed as part of the Char Dhaam all-weather road, which will connect various Hindu pilgrimage sites.
Some experts say the project, a flagship initiative of the federal government, will exacerbate fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris.