All forty-one (41) construction workers who were trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel for seventeen (17) days in northern India were brought to safety hours after the rescue crew drilled through the debris of rock, concrete and mud to reach them.
Following days of multiple rescue attempts that hit obstacles just meters from reaching the men, they were eventually pulled out on Tuesday on wheeled stretchers through a 90-centimetre (three-foot) wide steel pipe, in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
The final phase of the delicate operation was completed in about an hour.
The labourers, low-wage workers from some of India’s poorest states, had been stuck in the 4.5-km (three-mile) tunnel being built in Uttarakhand since it caved in early on November 12. The intricate and painstaking efforts to get them out had been closely watched across the country for days.
Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, the state’s top elected official, met some of the workers before they were taken to the hospital, presenting them with traditional marigold garlands. Ambulances and helicopters were on standby at the entrance of the tunnel.
Officials at the site, where sweets were being distributed and firecrackers were set off in celebration, said the workers appeared to be in good health.
Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari said in a statement. “This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years.”
Military engineers finally had to use a so-called “rat-hole mining” technique, digging by hand to clear the rocks and rubble over the remaining nine meters (29 feet), with temperatures plummeting in the remote mountain location.
Authorities had said the men were safe underground, with access to light, water and medicines through a pipe. While they were being supplied with hot meals through a 15-cm (six-inch) pipe after days of surviving only on dry food, they were getting oxygen through a separate pipe.
The tunnel is part of the $1.5 billion Char Dham highway, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious projects that aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites through an 890-km (550-mile) network of roads.
Some experts have said the project will exacerbate the fragile conditions in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris. While officials have not said what caused the tunnel collapse, the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.