Indian workers who have been stuck inside an under-construction tunnel for 15 days will be out “by Christmas”, according to a tunnelling expert who is assisting the rescue effort.
The comments are an indication that the 41 workers may have to remain trapped inside the tunnel under inhospitable conditions for potentially a month longer than expected.
It comes as more bad news for the families of the workers, who have been waiting anxiously for them to be rescued, with many camping out at the site of the operation.
India’s authorities said that they are working to figure out a faster solution to evacuate the construction workers who have been stuck there since 12 November, while the Indian army has now joined the rescue effort.
Rescue teams have faced repeated issues with the drilling operation, from new landslides to equipment breakdowns, and now admit the operation could take much more time.
Australian tunnelling expert Arnold Dix, who has been working with Indian officials, told the media he had “always promised that they will be home by Christmas”.
“This operation could take a long time,” said Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the country’s National Disaster Management Authority.
The rescue operation could take several more weeks as teams drilling through rocks and debris faced a new hurdle after the auger machine being used to drill a hole in the collapsed tunnel stopped working on Saturday.
The blades of the auger machine got stuck in the debris and the machine stopped working. The machine had drilled about 6.5ft of the last 40-foot stretch of rock debris to create a passage for the workers to come out.
Experts are now focusing on two alternative rescue plans.
One involves workers, including the Indian army, carrying out a manual drilling exercise to excavate the roughly 33ft stretch needed to reach the workers.
The other involves vertically drilling 282ft from above, something that could take much longer.
The rescue operations have been taking longer as the tunnel is located in an environmentally sensitive region in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
The workers, who are migrant labourers from various parts of India, are being provided with oxygen, food and water through a pipe.
Doctors and officials have been in regular contact with them, and have continually assessed their health and wellbeing.