Day 10: Men trapped in Uttarkashi tunnel come on camera, focus back on drilling through rubble

Day 10: Men trapped in Uttarkashi tunnel come on camera, focus back on drilling through rubble

Uttarkashi/New Delhi, Nov 21 (PTI) As the first visuals of the 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara tunnel emerged Tuesday, officials said the focus of the multiple-agency rescue mission remains on digging horizontally through the debris of the collapsed stretch.

However, rescue workers continued to prepare for other options – including drilling from above the tunnel to reach the workers trapped inside for nine days.

Horizontal drilling through the debris was put on hold last Friday afternoon after the heavy duty auger machine encountered a hard boulder, making rescue agency consider other approaches as well.

But on Tuesday, remarks by National Disaster Management Authority member Lt General (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain, Road Transport and Highways secretary Anurag Jain and Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami made it clear that resuming this paused operation was the main priority.

At the disaster site in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district, a video clip captured by an endoscopic camera sent in through a new six-inch wide pipeline brought hope to relatives who are camping there for days.

The pipeline was pushed late Monday through 53 metres of debris -– the collapsed stretch of the under-construction tunnel on the Char Dham route.

In the video released by the rescue agencies, the workers wearing yellow and white helmets are seen receiving food items sent to them through the pipeline and talking to each other.

Officials watching them on a screen are heard giving instructions, asking them to clean the lens. The workers are told to come near the camera and use walkie-talkies, apparently sent down earlier.

The camera is then pulled back up so that water can be released under pressure to clean the pipeline.

Relatives have talked earlier to the trapped workers through the four-inch compressor tube that already existed. Food items like dry fruit were also being sent through that thinner pipe.

But the new ‘lifeline’ has come as a morale booster. Communication is much better and larger quantities of food can now be sent in.

'I talked to him this morning,” Sunita Hembrum, whose brother-in-law Pradeep Kisku is among the trapped labourers, told PTI. She has come to Silkyara from Banka in Bihar.

“Oranges have been supplied to them through the new food pipe. Efforts are also underway to send khichdi to them. He was fine,' she said. 'Earlier we had to shout to make ourselves audible but today his voice was clear.' According to officials, food items like dalia, khichdi, sliced apples and bananas can be sent in through the new pipeline. Also, mobile phones and chargers could also be sent to the workers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to CM Dhami on Tuesday, the second day in a row, to enquire about the progress of the rescue effort.

“The prime minister said it is our top priority to rescue all the workers safely,' Dhami posted on social media.

In Delhi, NDMA member Lt General (retd) Hasnain said simultaneous efforts are being made on five fronts to save the workers.

But he added that “the focus is on horizontal drilling' as the rock formation at the site poses challenges to vertical drilling. Road Transport and Highways secretary Jain said under the current circumstances 'vertical drilling is the second-best option”.

In Uttarakhand, CM Dhami too said the focus at the moment was on taking forward the drilling work with the American auger machine through the rubble inside the tunnel.

Tribhuwan Singh Pangti, who retired as the additional director general of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) told PTI that horizontal drilling was safer. He claimed that safety norms were ignored during the construction of the Silkyari tunnel.

International tunnelling expert Arnold Dix, who is at the site, said vertical drilling demanded precision. While drilling from the top, even a small mistake could mean missing the tunnel, he said.

The horizontal drilling option involves inserting sections of a steel pipe as the machine drills through. The workers can then crawl out of the pipeline.

But this operation was put on hold just after drilling up to about 24 metres when the attempt to pierce through a hard hurdle triggered vibrations that raised concerns over safety.

The “second-best” option involves drilling more than 80 metres vertically from above the tunnel to reach the two-kilometre built-up stretch where the workers are now confined.

Drilling from the tunnel's Balkot end is another alternative on which the rescue agencies are working. Drilling parallel tunnels is also being considered.

Some of the heavy machinery for these new approaches has reached the disaster site. A road has also been constructed to haul a 75-tonne machine up the hill.

A doctor who talked to the trapped workers through the new pipeline said some of them complained of a burning sensation while passing urine. Electrolyte powder packets, multivitamin tablets and anti-depressants are being sent to them, general physician P S Pokhriyal said.

Uttarkhand's Director General (Health) Vinita Shah also visited Silkyara to oversee arrangements for shifting the 41 workers after their evacuation to different hospitals in the district.

In Delhi, the government issued an advisory to private television channels, asking them to be sensitive in their coverage of the rescue operations. PTI ALM CORR DIV SKU ZMN RHL BKS CS MR ASH ASH

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