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Final push in India tunnel rescue

NEW DELHI (AP) — The rescue of 41 construction workers trapped nearly two weeks in a collapsed tunnel in northern India has reached the final stretch of digging.

The drill that’s digging into the dirt and debris had made it through 44 metres out of approximately the 57 needed, Harpal Singh, a manager of another tunnel project who is helping with the rescue, told the Press Trust of India news agency late on Wednesday night.

Once they finish excavating the additional 13 metres, the rescuers can insert and weld together pipes through which the workers can crawl to their freedom.

Singh said he hoped that the trapped workers would be rescued Thursday morning.

Rescuers resumed drilling horizontally through the entrance of the tunnel Wednesday after problems with the machine forced them to stop digging last week and consider alternate rescue plans.

The mountainous terrain in Uttarakhand state has proved a challenge to the drilling machine, which broke down as rescuers attempted to dig horizontally toward the trapped workers. The machine’s high-intensity vibrations also caused more debris to fall.

The workers have been trapped since November 12, when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometre tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 metres from the entrance.

On Wednesday evening, ambulances and a team of 15 doctors were deployed to the accident site, PTI reported.

Relatives who had gathered there told the news agency they were finally feeling optimistic, after days of anxiety and concern over the rescue and well-being of the workers.

Devashish, whose brother-in-law is among those stuck, said he spoke to him on Monday. “Sonu repeatedly told me not to worry now and that we would meet soon,” he said.

Authorities began supplying the trapped workers with hot meals, made of rice and lentils, through a six-inch pipe earlier this week after days of them surviving off of dry food sent through a narrower pipe. Oxygen is being supplied to them through a separate pipe.

Officials on Tuesday released a video, after a camera was pushed through the pipe, showing the workers in their construction hats moving around the blocked tunnel while communicating with rescuers on the ground through walkie-talkies.

Uttarakhand is dotted with Hindu temples, and highway and building construction has been constant to accommodate the influx of pilgrims and tourists. The tunnel is part of the Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.

People sit near the site of an under-construction road tunnel that collapsed trapping 41 workers in Silkyara in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Wednesday, November 22, 2023. PHOTO: AP