On Friday, the drilling was interrupted when some machine bearings became damaged by the breaking of rocks and clearing of debris, officials said, adding a new challenge to the long-drawn rescue efforts. Rescuers waited for a new machine to drill through the rubble so the workers could crawl to their freedom.
“During the execution of the work at around 2:45 pm, a large scale cracking sound was heard by officials and the team working inside the tunnel and created a panic situation in the tunnel as well as to the team working,” the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) said in a statement.
They added that there was a “strong possibility that a further collapse may take place and accordingly pipe pushing activity has been stopped”.
A new machine was expected to reach the accident site later Saturday, allowing rescuers to start drilling again, said Vijay Singh, an officer at the control room.
Authorities began drilling into the rubble and debris on Thursday and have so far covered a stretch of 24m (79 feet), said Devendra Patwal, a disaster management official. It may require up to 60m (197 feet) to enable the trapped workers’ escape, Patwal told The Associated Press on Friday.
Earlier, the rescuers had hoped to complete the drilling by Friday night and create an escape tunnel of pipes welded together. But rescue efforts hit a snag after a loud cracking sound came from within the tunnel, startling the authorities.
As the rescue operation stretched into its seventh day, families of those trapped were frustrated and angry. Relatives from various states have spent nights near the tunnel, seeking updates. The recent setback has only exacerbated their worries.
Krishna Patel, whose 20-year-old nephew is among the trapped, had hoped to see his relative on Friday. “The administration keeps changing the timeline for when they may be rescued. It’s very frustrating,” he said.
Some of the workers felt fever and body aches on Wednesday, but officials said there has been no deterioration in their condition. Nuts, roasted chickpeas, popcorn and medicine are being sent to them via a pipe every two hours.
Patwal said two doctors at the accident site were in regular contact with the trapped workers to ensure their physical and mental well-being. “We are trying our best to keep the spirit of the
trapped laborers high because it is a trying time for all – the rescuers as well as the trapped people,” he said.
The construction workers have been trapped since Sunday when a landslide caused a portion of the 4.5-km (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200m (650 feet) from the entrance. The hilly area is prone to landslides and subsidence.
The site is in Uttarakhand, a mountainous state dotted with Hindu temples that attract many pilgrims and tourists. Highway and building construction has been constant to accommodate the influx. The tunnel is part of the busy Chardham all-weather road, a flagship federal project connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites.
State officials have contacted Thai experts who helped rescue a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018, state government administrator Gaurav Singh said. They also have approached the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute for possible help.
Authorities have not said what caused the tunnel to cave in, but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
(Additional inputs from agencies)