By Saurabh Sharma
SILKYARA, India (Reuters) – Akash Singh Negi has spent three sleepless nights outside a blocked highway tunnel under construction in the Indian Himalayas, shivering in the cold while waiting for his father to be rescued.
Gabbar Singh Negi is one of 40 men trapped inside since Sunday morning when a portion of the tunnel collapsed and blocked their exit.
Efforts to reach them have made little progress. Rescuers started using a new drilling machine sent in by New Delhi on Thursday.
The plan is to create space for a pipe that can be used by the trapped men to crawl to safety.
They have electricity for lights and are already being supplied food, water and oxygen through a pipe. Authorities say the men are doing well and it’s just a matter of time before they are brought out.
“We are being told that the rescue mission will be completed soon but it has been five days,” Negi, 18, who wore a torn yellow jacket, told Reuters on Thursday.
“I have been able to talk to my father through a steel pipe and he has told us not to worry. But we are worried,” he said, adding that his father is a supervisor employed by the private engineering firm contracted to build the tunnel.
The 4.5-km (3-mile) tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The $1.5 billion project aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites through 890 km (550 miles) of roads.
The 40 trapped men are low-wage workers, mostly from poor states in the north and east of India.
‘WE WANT THEM OUT SOON’
On Thursday, V.K. Singh, federal deputy minister for road transport and highways, said at the site he was “very optimistic” about saving all 40 workers.
Relatives of four of the 40 men have managed to reach the site in Silkyara, high in the hills of Uttarakhand where night temperatures have fallen to 13 degrees Celsius (55°F) as winter sets in.
Negi’s uncle, Prem Singh Negi, said the government and the rescue team have been giving them “fake assurances”.
“It is the fifth day and they have not drilled through the debris yet. We want them to be out soon,” Prem Singh Negi told Reuters.
Chaudhary, who gave only one name, reached Silkyara from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state on Thursday, looking for his son Manjeet Kumar, 22.
With little information about the rescue work, Chaudhary pleaded with police at the barricades to get his son out alive.
Authorities said they have set up a medical facility outside the tunnel and hospitals nearby were on standby.
“If all goes well, the workers will be out soon,” said Devendra Singh Patwal, a disaster management officer.
(Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Nick Macfie)