SILKYARA, India (Reuters) – Rescue workers renewed their efforts on Thursday to reach 40 men trapped for a fifth day inside a collapsed highway tunnel in India, although progress was slow as they began digging through rocks and soil debris.
Authorities said they were confident that an advanced drilling machine arrived from New Delhi would speed up the rescue operation at the site in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
The plan is to dig and create space for a pipe that the trapped men can use to crawl to safety.
The 4.5-km tunnel is part of the Char Dham Expressway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The $1.5 billion project aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites via 890 km of roads.
The authorities did not say why the tunnel collapsed, but the area is vulnerable to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
Excavations penetrated about 12 meters of debris on Thursday evening, officials said, adding that they had to cover a total distance of about 60 metres.
They added that the machine is capable of digging between two and 2.5 meters of rock per hour and encountered “obstacles in the form of rocks, bars and small cement blocks.”
“There is a big challenge in keeping the alignment straight, which is why it takes a lot of time,” Devendra Singh Patwal, a disaster management official, told Reuters.
He added that the process would have to start over if the alignment changed.
“There is electricity, water and we are sending food. The new, more powerful and faster machine has been deployed,” VK Singh, Deputy Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways and a retired Army Commander, told reporters at the site.
“Our priority is to rescue them all. The morale of the people trapped inside is high. We are very optimistic about getting them out,” he added, adding that the maximum is “to complete this matter within two or three days, but it could be possible.” It happens faster, too.”
Singh said Indian agencies involved in the rescue efforts were consulting experts in Austria, Norway and Thailand, but did not provide details.
Since the tunnel collapse, the trapped men have been supplied with food, water and oxygen via a tube and are in contact with rescuers via walkie-talkies.
A six-bed medical facility has been established near the tunnel, and nearby hospitals have been placed on standby.
“The food items provide them with enough calories and can help them for up to nine days,” said RCS Pawar, chief medical officer of the district, when asked how long the 40 men could survive on the dry fruits they were provided with. .
He added that they were also given medicines for fever, headache and nausea, as some of them complained of these problems “and this could be due to various factors.”
The highway project faced some criticism from environmental experts, and some work was halted in January after hundreds of homes along the roads were damaged due to subsidence.
The federal government said it used environmentally friendly techniques in the design to make the geologically unstable stretches safer.
Additional reporting by Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Writing by YP Rajesh. Edited by Sharon Singleton
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