Uttarkashi tunnel collapse

Preparations for vertical drilling underway as rescue work continues after collapse of a portion of the under-construction tunnel in Uttarkashi district. Photo: PTI

Silkyara tunnel collapse: PM dials up CM Dhami; international tunneling expert visits site

Some experts have raised safety concerns, and said there should be escape routes in such long tunnel projects to facilitate rescue work in case of an emergency

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Rescue work at the collapsed Silkyara Tunnel in Uttarakhand has virtually remained on hold since Friday (November 17) as the agencies involved in the effort are preparing for the next stage - adopting multiple approaches to reach the 41 men trapped inside for a week.

Heavy machines arrived at Silkyara tunnel on Monday (November 20) to help in the rescue operation.

PM takes stock of situation

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday spoke to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami over phone to take stock of the rescue operations.

He said necessary rescue equipment and resources are being provided by the Centre and through mutual coordination between central and state agencies and expressed hope that the trapped workers will be safely evacuated. Modi said it is necessary to maintain the morale of the trapped workers, according to a statement issued by the Uttarakhand Chief Minister's Office.

This is the third time that the prime minister has spoken to Dhami about the rescue operations being carried out at the tunnel.

Dhami briefed the prime minister about the rescue operations in detail and said all the trapped workers are safe with oxygen, nutritious food and water being constantly supplied to them.

Officials said a road to the top of the hill has been laid in a single day for digging a vertical shaft down into the tunnel. Also, the Tehri Hydroelectric Development Corporation began “micro tunnelling” on Sunday night from the Barkot end of the under-construction tunnel on the Char Dham route, part of which collapsed on November 12.

Boring through the debris of the collapsed 60-metre stretch from the Silkyara end was put on hold on Friday afternoon when the American-made heavy-duty auger machine encountered a hard obstacle after about 22 metres. The setback forced a rethink. Officials drew up a series of alternative plans to reach the workers trapped inside the under-construction tunnel.

Boring horizontally best bet: Gadkari

But after a visit to the site on Sunday (November 19), Union Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said boring horizontally through the debris with the huge auger machine appeared to be the best bet. He anticipated a breakthrough in two and a half days.

A media brief issued in Delhi said this drilling would begin again on Monday (November 20), after safety arrangements for rescue workers are put in place.

By Sunday evening, rescue workers had pushed in a six-inch wide tube up to 39 metres into the rubble. Once it cuts across the collapsed stretch, the trapped workers would be sent food and water through this pipe as well. A smaller four-inch wide “compressor pipe” already runs through the debris and is being used to send in food, water, oxygen and medicines, officials said.

The stretch in which the workers are trapped is about 2 km of the built-up portion of the tunnel and is 8.5 metres high. There is electricity and water available, a press release said. The Rail Vikas Nigam Limited has begun work on a vertical pipeline for supplying essential items after the completion of the approach road to the top of the hill.

‘Evacuating workers biggest priority’

"Saving the trapped workers and evacuating them at the earliest is the biggest priority," Gadkari told reporters at Silkyara after a meeting with the experts there. "Preparations are underway to restart the auger machine and resume drilling and pipe-laying at the tunnel," he said.

Gadkari said the auger machine had worked well through the soft soil but there were vibrations in the tunnel when it encountered a hard object. This posed a danger to the safety of the rescue workers.

"Though I am no technical expert, in the given circumstances, horizontal digging seems the best option. If the auger machine does not encounter any obstacles, it might reach the trapped workers in two and a half days," he said.

Uttarakhand Disaster Management Secretary Ranjit Kumar Sinha said the minister has suggested that there could be space between the top of the debris and the tunnel roof, and this could be explored by robots to see if another pipe for life support could be pushed through.

Road Transport and Highways Secretary Anurag Jain said multivitamins, antidepressants, and dry fruit are being provided to the trapped workers.

"Fortunately, there is light inside because the electricity is on. There is a pipeline, and so water is available. There is a four-inch pipe that was used for compression. Through it we are sending food from day 1," he said.

Multi-pronged approach

The multiple-pronged approach now being adopted follows a series of setbacks in rescue efforts. When using earth-moving equipment failed, an auger machine was brought in. When this too didn’t work, the larger American-made drilling machine was airlifted by the IAF from Delhi.

A similar machine was also dispatched from Indore in case a replacement was needed. The vertical drilling equipment arriving next is too big to be hauled by air and will be brought to the site by road, the authorities said.

International tunnelling experts join rescue mission

International tunnelling experts are now joining the rescue operation that has been going on for almost a week.

Arnold Dix, president of International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, a non-governmental organisation that operates in 78 countries, has reached the rescue site and is expected to help come up with a plan to rescue the trapped workers.

Experts raise safety concerns, say 'no escape route planned'

Certain experts have raised safety concerns in the construction of the tunnel. Speaking to TOI, PC Nawani, former director of the Geological Survey of India, said that as a norm, there should be escape routes in such long tunnel projects to facilitate rescue work in case of an emergency. He said in this case, extra support through available instruments should have been provided on the identified soft/loose party of the mountain. He further said that companies and agencies involved in tunnel construction in India tended to overlook safety concerns and measures suggested by geologists.

Another senior geologist SP Sati said that the whole region where the tunnel is being built is a fragile zone, with fractured rocks.

Another geologist who wanted to remain anonymous said that in the absence of an escape route, workers were facing the challenge of a contaminated environment as gases generated underground were not being channelled out.

Trying times for families of trapped workers

Family members of many of the 41 workers have accused the government of sitting idle while the men trapped inside lose hope.

"Neither the government nor the company is doing anything. They are only giving us hope but are not doing anything."

Govt to bear travel, other expenses of families

The Uttarakhand government will bear the travel, food, and lodging expenses of the relatives of the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel.

Assuring the families of the trapped workers that they will be rescued soon, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Monday (November 20) said officials have been asked to stay in touch with the relatives of the trapped workers so that they do not face any inconvenience.

The state government will bear the expenses of those who want to visit Silkyara to enquire about their well-being, he said. Psychiatrists have also been roped in to maintain the morale of the trapped workers, the chief minister said.

In the meantime, prayers were being offered at the main entrance of the tunnel where rescue operations to bring out the stranded victims are underway.

(With inputs from agencies)

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