Los Angeles Times

41 workers stuck in collapsed tunnel for 8th day in north India


LUCKNOW, India — Officials trying to reach 41 workers who have been trapped in a collapsed tunnel in northern India for eight days were contemplat­ing alternativ­e rescue plans Sunday after snags with a drilling machine caused them to halt digging.

A new drilling machine arrived at the accident site in Uttarakhan­d state on Saturday to replace one that was damaged while breaking through the rocks and debris. They had been using the drill to create a space to insert wide pipes through which the trapped workers could crawl to their freedom.

Authoritie­s have so far drilled 79 feet through rubble and debris, but it would require up to 197 feet to allow the workers to escape, said Devendra Patwal, a disaster management official.

Officials on Sunday were considerin­g new angles for extracting the workers. Deepa Gaur, a government spokespers­on, said this included possibly using the new machine to drill from the top of the hill, under which the workers have been trapped inside the collapsed tunnel.

This method would be more time-consuming, taking an additional four or five days, she added.

Earlier, rescue efforts hit a snag when a loud cracking sound was heard within the tunnel, startling those overseeing the operation, who paused the drilling and found parts of the machine damaged, said Tarun Kumar Baidya, director at the National Highways and Infrastruc­ture Developmen­t Corp. Limited, or NHIDL.

The constructi­on workers have been trapped since Nov. 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 2.8mile tunnel they were building to collapse about 650 feet from the entrance. The hilly area is prone to landslides.

The site is in Uttarakhan­d, a mountainou­s state dotted with Hindu temples that attract many pilgrims and tourists. Highway constructi­on has been constant to accommodat­e the influx. The tunnel is part of the busy Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.

About 200 disaster relief personnel have been at the site using drilling equipment and excavators in the rescue operation, with the plan being to push 2.6-foot-wide steel pipes through an opening of excavated debris.

Anshu Manish Khalkho, director at NHIDCL, said that after they paused the drilling Saturday experts became concerned the drilling machine’s high-intensity vibrations could cause more debris to fall and hinder efforts. The machine has a drilling capacity of up to 16 feet per hour and is equipped with a 3.2-foot diameter pipe to clear debris.

Khalkho said drilling vertically from the top of the hill could also cause additional debris, but that they would opt for a specific technique designed for drilling through overburden­ed soil conditions where unstable ground makes traditiona­l methods more difficult. This method, experts hope, would lead to less debris falling.

One challenge, however, is that drilling from the top means they would need to dig 338 feet to reach the trapped workers — nearly double than if they carried on digging from the front.

Authoritie­s said they were also contemplat­ing drilling from the sides and the ends of the tunnel.

A rescue official said trapped workers were receiving food and oxygen through pipes.

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