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Rescuers drill two-thirds of way towards trapped workers

SILKYARA TUNNEL (AFP) – Indian rescuers have drilled two-thirds of the way through the debris towards 41 workers trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for 11 days, officials said yesterday.

“I am very happy to share.. that 39 metres of drilling has been completed,” a Road and Highways Ministry official involved in the operations Mahmood Ahmad said.

Engineers were working to drive a steel pipe through at least 57 metres of earth and rock dividing the trapped men from freedom.

Excavators have been removing tonnes of earth, concrete and rubble from the under-construction tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand since November 12, when a portion of the tunnel collapsed.

Looking into the tunnel entrance yesterday, an AFP journalist could see sparks flying as workers welded metal tube sections together, with the site busy with excavators and heavy trucks.

The entrance of the under construction Silkyara road tunnel during rescue efforts for trapped construction workers, days after a section of the tunnel collapsed in the Uttarkashi district of India’s Uttarakhand state. PHOTO: AFP

“If there is no blockage, we hope there could be happy news late tonight or tomorrow,” Ahmad told reporters at the site.

“This is very happy news for us, that we are moving forward at a fast pace,” he added.

However, he warned that the remaining section yet to be drilled was critical.

Rescue efforts have been slow, complicated by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of crucial heavy-drilling machines.

The giant earth-boring machine last week ran into boulders, and drilling was put on hold for more than three days after a cracking sound in the roof.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami yesterday spoke of the “positive progress made in the last 24 hours”, without further details.

But a government statement also noted that “timelines provided are subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.

In case the route through the main tunnel entrance does not work, blasting and drilling have also begun from the far end of the unfinished tunnel, nearly half a kilometre long.

Preparations have also been made for a risky vertical shaft directly above.