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Indian rescuers drill to free 40 tunnel workers trapped for five days

DEHRADUN (AFP) – Indian rescuers said on Thursday that a powerful new drilling machine had been deployed as efforts to free 40 workers trapped in a collapsed road tunnel entered their fifth day.

Excavators have been removing debris since last Sunday from the site of the collapse in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand to create an escape tunnel for the workers, some of whom have fallen sick.

But rescue efforts have been slowed by debris continuing to fall as workers laboured to clear the tunnel, with progress stalled after an earth-boring drill developed problems. The air force flew in a second drilling machine on a C-130 Hercules military plane on Wednesday, with the giant drill bit stretching much the length of the aircraft’s cargo hold.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami confirmed yesterday that drilling had started, saying that rescuers were working on a “war footing”.

“Evacuating the personnel trapped in the tunnel is the top priority,” Dhami said in a statement on social media. “We are trying to get all the workers out safely as soon as possible.”

Engineers are trying to drive a steel pipe about 90 centimetres (cm) wide through the debris – wide enough for the trapped men to squeeze through.

As rescuers race to save the men, India has sought advice from the Thai company that rescued children from a flooded cave in 2018, as well as engineering experts in soil and rock mechanics at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute.

Rescuers can communicate with the trapped men using radios.

Food, water and medicine have also been sent to the trapped workers via a 15cm pipe as well as oxygen.

Security personnel stand guard near the entrance to the site of an under-construction road tunnel that collapsed in Uttarakhand, India. PHOTO: AP