Silkyara, India, Nov. 16 (Reuters) – Rescue workers renewed efforts on Thursday to rescue 40 people trapped in a collapsed highway tunnel in India for a fifth day, although progress was slow as they began digging through rock and mud debris.
Officials are hopeful that a state-of-the-art drilling machine brought in from New Delhi will speed up rescue efforts at the site in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
The plan is to drill a hole for a tube that can be used to crawl to safety for trapped people.
The 4.5 km (3 mi) tunnel is part of the Sar Dham Expressway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The $1.5 billion project aims to connect four Hindu holy sites through 890 km (550 mi) of roads.
Officials have not said what caused the tunnel to cave in, but the area is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
Thursday evening’s excavation penetrated about 12 meters (40 feet) of debris, officials said, adding that they had a total of 60 meters to cover.
They said the machine could drill through rock at about 2-2.5 meters per hour and encountered “obstacles in the form of rocks or wires and small cement blocks”.
“There is a big challenge in keeping the alignment straight, which takes a lot of time,” disaster management official Devendra Singh Patwal told Reuters.
If the alignment changes, the process has to start over, he said.
“There is electricity, water, we are sending food. A new engine that is more powerful and faster has been used,” VK Singh, Union Deputy Minister for Road Transport and Highways and a retired army general, told reporters at the scene.
“Our priority is to save everyone. The morale of the people trapped inside is high. We are very confident of getting them out,” he said, adding, “It should be done in two or three days, but it can be done. And done quickly”.
Singh said Indian agencies involved in the rescue operation were consulting experts in Austria, Norway and Thailand, but did not elaborate.
Since the tunnel collapse, the trapped people have been given food, water and oxygen by tube and are in contact with rescuers through walkie-talkies.
A six-bed medical facility has been set up near the tunnel and nearby hospitals are on stand-by.
“The food items provide them with enough calories and this will help them for up to nine days,” said District Chief Medical Officer RCS. Pawar said when asked how long 40 men could survive on the dry fruits provided.
They were also given medicines for fever, headache and nausea as some of them complained of these problems and “it could be due to various factors,” he added.
The highway project has faced some criticism from environmentalists and some work was halted in January after hundreds of homes collapsed and were damaged along the route.
The central government has said that it has used environmentally friendly techniques in the design to make the geologically unstable stretches safe.
Additional reporting by Tanvi Mehta in New Delhi; Written by YP Rajesh; Editing by Sharon Singleton
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