Anger boils over as hopes fade for glacier victims

TAPOVAN, INDIA (AFP) – Dozens of angry and desperate relatives of about 30 people trapped in a tunnel since a glacier disaster in India jostled with police yesterday as hopes faded that they would be found alive.

More than 170 people were still missing after a barrage of water and debris hurtled with terrifying speed and power down a valley yesterday morning, sweeping away bridges and roads and hitting two hydroelectric plants.

Thirty-two bodies have been found so far, officials said on Wednesday. It may take days for more bodies to be recovered under the tonnes of rocks and other debris and the thick blanket of grey mud. The main focus of the massive rescue operation, under way day and night since Sunday, is a tunnel near a severely damaged hydroelectric plant that was under construction at Tapovan in Uttarakhand state.

Workers there have been battling their way through hundreds of tonnes of sludge, boulders and other obstacles to try and reach between 25 and 35 people who rescuers hope are still alive in air pockets.

“As time passes, the chances of finding them are reducing. But miracles do happen,” Piyoosh Rautela, a senior state disaster relief official told AFP. “We are working round the clock – man, machinery we are all working round the clock. But the amount of debris is so much that it’s going to take a while to remove all that,” he said.

Rescue teams near the entrance of a tunnel in Chamoli District, where dozens are still feared to be trapped following a flash flood thought to have been caused when a glacier broke off. PHOTO: AFP

Outside there were medical teams on standby with oxygen cylinders and stretchers, as well as increasingly desperate and enraged relatives.

There have been no signs that their loved ones are still alive.

“This entire rescue operation is a joke,” Sanjay Pant, whose 24-year-old electrical engineer brother Abhishek was in the tunnel, told AFP.

“We are not living in the 18th Century where just one bulldozer can be used to clear tonnes of slush. Where is our technology, where are our machines?”

“Authorities are not showing any urgency to rescue those trapped. Another day and we will have to give up hope,” said Santosh Yadav whose brother-in-law Sanjay was also in the tunnel.

“They cannot survive too long in the tunnel even if they are alive now. There is no air, water or food inside and it is freezing cold inside the tunnel. Only God can save them.” Shuhil Dhiman, 47, said that his brother-in-law Praveen Diwan, a private contractor and father of three, had driven into the tunnel on Sunday morning with three others when the flood hit.

“I am hoping against hope,” he said. “The authorities are doing their best but the situation is beyond anyone’s ability,” he told AFP.

Twenty-five of the bodies recovered so far were yet to be identified. Many of the victims are poor workers from hundreds of miles away in other parts of India.

The cause of the disaster is thought to have been a chunk of glacier breaking off.

Glaciers have been melting rapidly in the Himalayan region because of global warming, and experts predict similar catastrophes in the future.