Silkyara tunnel collapse | Workers greet rescuers with almonds; Diwali back home
Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami and Union MoS for Road Transport & Highways VK Singh greet rescued workers coming out of the collapsed Silkyara Tunnel in Uttarkashi district on November 28 evening | PTI

Silkyara tunnel collapse | Workers greet rescuers with almonds; Diwali back home

CM Dhami announces Rs 1 lakh for each worker; Centre to conduct safety audit of under-construction tunnels; local deity’s shrine to be rebuilt

Feroze Qureshi and Monu Kumar, experts in the rat-hole mining technique, were the first to meet the 41 labourers rescued from the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand later on Tuesday (November 28) evening after they cleared the last bit of rubble inside the structure.

All the 41 workers were rescued after 17 days of a multi-agency operation conducted by the central and state governments.

Qureshi from Delhi and Kumar from Uttar Pradesh were part of a 12-member team of rat-hole mining technique experts who were called on Sunday to do the drilling after an American auger machine came across hurdles while clearing the rubble.

“They (the labourers) could hear us when we reached the last portion of the rubble. Soon after removing the rubble, we got down to the other side,” Qureshi, a resident of Delhi’s Khajoori Khas, told PTI.

“The labourers thanked and hugged me. They also lifted me on their shoulders,” he said, adding that he was happier than the rescued workers.

Qureshi is an employee of the Delhi-based Rockwell Enterprises, an expert in tunnelling work. The leader of the 12-member team from Rockwell Enterprises, Wakeel Hassan, said he was approached for help by a company involved in the rescue operation four days ago.

“The work got delayed while removing the portion of the auger from the rubble. We started at 3 pm on Monday and finished the work at 6 pm on Tuesday,” Hassan said, adding, “We had said the work would be finished in 24 to 36 hours and that is what we did.” He also said they did not charge any money for taking part in the rescue operation.

“They (the labourers) gave me almonds and asked my name. Soon, our other colleagues joined us and we were there for about half an hour,” Kumar, a resident of Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, said.

He said the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel went inside the tunnel after them. “We came back only after the NDRF personnel arrived,” Kumar said. “We are very happy that we were part of this historic operation,” he added.

CM Dhami and Union MoS VK Singh pose for a group photo with rescue officials after the successful evacuation of the 41 workers from the collapsed Silkyara tunnel | PTI

NDRF into the tunnel

NDRF team commander Manmohan said the moment four NDRF personnel arrived on the other side of the rubble, the labourers’ hopes of a safe evacuation were kindled.

“As soon as we waved at them and announced that an NDRF team is here for their safe evacuation and they have no reason to worry, there was a loud cheer among the group,” Manmohan, who was the first person to crawl through the passage to the other end of the rubble, said.

The NDRF team was there for nearly two hours, he added.

“We told them we are from the NDRF and have come to evacuate you to safety. The entire country stands with you,” Sachin Chaudhary from Rajasthan’s Alwar told PTI while recounting his experience.

“We crawled through the 800-mm-diameter pipes to reach them. We had stretchers behind us. We had an oxygen cylinder and water bottles with us,” he said.

The NDRF personnel sent out the older ones among the labourers — around 10-12 of them — on wheeled stretchers through the passage, while the rest crawled through the steel chute wearing knee-pads and helmets.

Ambulances with rescued workers come out from the collapsed Silkyara Tunnel | PTI

“All of them healthy”

As the trapped workers emerged from the tunnel, some with smiling faces and others looking grateful and exhausted at the end of the 17-day ordeal, loud cheers and slogans erupted outside as people greeted the ambulances that took the workers to community health centres while locals distributed streets. Some local villagers burst crackers.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and Union minister VK Singh welcomed the 41 workers with garlands, shook hands and embraced them, while the rescue teams and officials clapped.

An ambulance with the first of the 41 workers left the mouth of the tunnel around 8 pm, about an hour after rat-hole mining experts dug through the last stretch of rubble. The ambulances ferried the workers to a community health centre where a special 41-bed ward had been set up.

Before this, the workers were given a quick medical checkup inside the tunnel.

CM Dhami said no worker was in a critical condition. But they will be kept under medical observation for some time before being sent home, he said.

“All of them were healthy. They crawled out of the passage rather than being carried on stretchers,” Dhami told reporters soon after the evacuation of the labourers from the Silkyara tunnel.

He said the youngest of the worker was rescued first. Quoting the labourers with whom he spoke after their evacuation, the chief minister said they were uncertain about their fate for the first few days, but once communication was established with them and they got to know about the enormous rescue operation launched for their safety, they became sure about their evacuation.

Deity’s wrath?

A portion of the under-construction on Uttarakhand’s Char Dham route collapsed on November 12, blocking the exit of the workers who were inside.

Food, medicines and other essentials were sent to them through a six-inch pipe pushed through the debris.

As the last ambulance carrying one of the 41 labourers left the site, Dhami and Singh went straight to a temple of local deity Baba Baukhnag to express their gratitude.

Some villagers had claimed that the temple had been shifted for the tunnel project and blamed it for the disaster. Dhami said a temple will be rebuilt now at the entrance of the tunnel.

A small temple of the deity, revered by the locals as their protector, had been erected at a corner of the tunnel to seek his forgiveness. Regular puja of the deity was held to bless the rescuers for accomplishing the mission that frequently ran into hurdles.

CM Dhami and Union MoS VK Singh greet rescued workers coming out of the collapsed Silkyara Tunnel on Tuesday evening | PTI

Emotional relatives

Anxious relatives who had been camping in the area were emotional as they were united with the workers after days of uncertainty. Back home, many said they will celebrate Diwali now as the shadow of despair that had fallen on the families disappeared.

“Finally, God heard us. My brother could be rescued. I am with him in an ambulance on the way to hospital,” Sunil, who was camping outside the tunnel in Uttarkashi, told PTI in a choked voice.

Sunil’s brother Anil was among the three youths from Kherabera in Jharkhand who were trapped in the tunnel.

Families of the workers, most of whom are from Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, were glued to television and phones after the news emerged that they could be recused any time. Sweets were distributed and crackers were burst at some places.

“It is like a new birth from them,” said a relative of Dhiren and Benudhar in the Mayurbhanj district in Odisha.

The families of six workers from Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh, lighted candles and lamps around the house.

“We will celebrate Diwali now that my son is safe,” said Anju, mother of Akhilesh, from Mirzapur.

In Khirabeda, villagers distributed laddus after the successful rescue. Rajendra, Sukhram and Anil, all in their early 20s, from the village, were among those trapped inside the tunnel for 17 days.

Sukhram’s sister Khushboo said that everyone in their village was celebrating.

According to Ram Kumar Bediya, a villager, a group of 13 people, all between 18 and 23, had left Khirabeda on November 1 to work at the tunnel.

When the disaster struck, three of them were working inside.

What now?

CM Dhami announced that Rs 1 lakh will be given to each of the 41 construction workers. The Union government has decided to conduct a safety audit of the under-construction tunnels, Dhami said.

“The manual miners played a big role in the rescue operation. International experts were consulted regarding the shortest route for the workers to come out,” he said.

Dhami especially thanked the manual workers from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), who drilled through the final stretch of the rubble to get to the labourers.

(With agency inputs)

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