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Uttarakhand tunnel collapse: A mountain moved, 41 rescued | India News

It was, literally, moving the mountain. Just around 8 pm Tuesday, a collective sigh of relief coursed across a nation after, capping an operation that lasted over 400 hours, rescuers reached the 41 workers trapped in the Uttarkashi tunnel since November 12.

It was a test of resolve, grit and perseverance — for those on both sides of the 57 metres of debris — as the rescue operation suffered one setback after another. In the final lap over the weekend, the drilling machine gave way, and, in the end, it was 14 “rat-hole miners” who dug through the last 12 metres and reached the trapped men.

Shortly after the first worker was taken out and ferried to a medical centre in an ambulance, the other 40 followed in quick succession, the ambulance headlamps lighting up the dark to show smiles all around.

All 41 were migrant workers from as many as eight states — 15 from Jharkhand, eight from Uttar Pradesh, five each from Odisha and Bihar, three from West Bengal, two each from Uttarakhand and Assam and one from Himachal Pradesh. They were working the night shift digging the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel on the Yamunotri National Highway when a portion of it collapsed at dawn on November 12.

This set off an unprecedented series of rescue operations that swung from despair to hope back to despair until a breakthrough on Tuesday. The first suggestion that the men could be out soon came from Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s social media post in the afternoon: “As a result of the immense grace of Baba Baukh Nag ji, prayers of crores of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams, the work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed. Soon, all the brothers will be taken out.”

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uttarakhand rescue Ambulances carrying workers trapped in the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand leave after the rescue operation completes on Tuesday, November 28. (Express photo by Chitral Khambhati)

In the evening, when the breakthrough was finally made, Dhami was in the tunnel with the rescuers.

The final leg of the rescue operation, which involved taking the men out one by one, was handled by personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), with their state counterparts providing support. Before the men were taken out, a temporary medical facility was established inside the tunnel in case anyone required immediate attention.

D C Nautiyal, a pharmacist on ambulance duty, said the rescued workers were being taken to the Chinyalisaur community health centre 30 km away, where a separate section with 41 beds had been prepared. The National Disaster Management Authority said the men would be kept under medical observation for 48-72 hours.

The rescue also meant a huge burden lifting off 41 families, many of whom have been camping in Uttarkashi for days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the patience the families had shown: “I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience has inspired everyone… The patience and courage their families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough.” Following the rescue, Modi also spoke to the workers over the phone.

“I also salute the spirit of all the people associated with this rescue operation. Their bravery and determination have given new life to our labourer brothers. Everyone involved in this mission has set an amazing example of humanity and teamwork,” the PM wrote.

Indeed, a multitude of agencies and officials worked together to achieve what initially seemed like an insurmountable task.

These included the NDRF, SDRF, BRO, RVNL, SJVNL, ONGC, ITBP, NHAIDCL, THDC, the state and central governments, the Army and the Air Force.

According to one official, the key was adapting to the many challenges that came their way. The first was when excavators working to remove debris failed to make headway. An auger machine was requisitioned from Dehradun but that proved insufficient. A larger machine was then flown in from Delhi, using which rescuers managed to drill through 45 of the 57 metres of debris.

Then came the most significant setback — the blades of the drilling machine broke inside the rescue pipes, and had to be manually cut. “Going inside that cramped space is hard in itself, but using gas cutters for hours inside is on a whole other level. It’s a game of stamina and experience,” recalled Praveen Yadav, an underground tunnelling expert for Trenchless Engineering, who was part of this procedure.

Once the broken blades were taken out, rescuers opted to go the rest of the way manually, calling 12 workers familiar with rat-hole mining — a method of extracting coal from narrow, horizontal seams.

The men, who started on Monday, managed to finish the task a day later.

Dhami said that since communication was established with those trapped inside, he had been talking to three team leaders — Sabah Ahmad, Gabbar Singh Negi and Akhilesh Kumar. When it was time for the final rescue, it was decided that the men should be taken out based on their age — the youngest came out first, and team leaders were last.

“We missed Diwali, we will celebrate now,” said Jharkhand resident Aditya Naik, whose younger brother Gunodhar Naik (28) and cousin Ravindra Naik (32) were among the trapped workers.

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