lRace Against Time: Indian Military Engineers Employ Hand-Digging Technique to Rescue Trapped Workers in Tunne

The Silkyara road tunnel in northern India, which partially collapsed on November 12

In a race against time, Indian military engineers are resorting to manual drilling to reach 41 workers who have been trapped in a collapsed road tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand for 16 days. The rescue operation has faced repeated setbacks, including the failure of machinery and challenging Himalayan terrain.

The soldiers plan to use a method known as “rat-hole mining,” involving hand-digging to clear rocks and rubble in the remaining nine meters (29 feet) of the tunnel. The extreme cold conditions in the remote mountain location have added to the complexity of the rescue effort.

Last week, efforts to drive a metal pipe horizontally through 57 meters (187 feet) of rock and concrete were hampered when the drilling machine encountered metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the earth, leading to the machine’s breakdown. Specialized equipment, including a superheated plasma cutter, was brought in to remove the broken parts of the drilling machine.

Abhishek Ruhela, a senior local civil servant, stated on Monday that preparations were underway for manual drilling, with Indian Army engineering battalion personnel and other rescue officers gearing up for the challenging task of rat-hole mining. The narrow pipe’s dimensions, just wide enough for a person to crawl through, make the manual drilling operation especially demanding.

Tunnel expert Chris Cooper, advising the rescue teams, expressed optimism that soldiers could successfully dig through, depending on how the ground behaves. He noted that they might encounter heavy-duty girders meant to support the collapsed roof, which may require cutting through. Despite the challenges, Cooper expressed confidence in overcoming the obstacles.

Simultaneously, vertical drilling has progressed over a quarter of the 89 meters down to the trapped workers. This route, although risky due to the collapsed terrain, involves drilling from above. Mahmood Ahmed, a top official in the national roads ministry, reported that vertical drilling is advancing at a fast pace, with teams reaching 19 meters (63 feet) by late Sunday.

Efforts are also underway from the far side of the road tunnel, where digging, blasting, and drilling have commenced on a longer third route estimated to be around 480 meters.

The 41 construction workers have been trapped in the Silkyara road tunnel since November 12. The rescue efforts have been hindered by falling debris and breakdowns of drilling machines, making progress slow and challenging.

Despite the difficulties, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami assured on Monday that all the trapped workers would be rescued. The workers were observed alive for the first time last Tuesday when an endoscopic camera was sent down a thin pipe to deliver air, food, water, and electricity to the trapped individuals. Although the situation is fraught with challenges, the commitment to the rescue mission remains steadfast.