Rescuers in India tunnel collapse work on alternative plan on seventh day

By Saurabh Sharma

SILKYARA, India (Reuters) -Rescuers trying to reach workers trapped for nearly a week in a collapsed highway tunnel in the Indian Himalayas began working on an alternate plan on Saturday, after the operation hit a snag the day before.

The men have been stuck in the hillside tunnel in since Sunday morning after it caved in and are safe, authorities said. The trapped workers have light and receive oxygen, food, water and medicines via a pipe, and can communicate via radios.

The new plan involves drilling vertically from the top of the mountain under which 41 workers were trapped while working on a highway tunnel, said D P Baloni, divisional forest officer for Uttarkashi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India.

The rescue team has been drilling horizontally through the debris of the collapsed tunnel to reach the trapped workers. But the augur machine being used to drill broke on Friday and a new one was flown in on Saturday.

The new plan is to simultaneously drill from the side and above, said Bhaskar Khulbe, officer on special duty for the tunnel project.

A geological survey was conducted by a team of experts that has helped identify four points on the mountain through which vertical drilling is possible, Khulbe said.

Drilling remains suspended for now and it will take another four or five days “to get the good news”, Khulbe told reporters.

Authorities have not said what caused the 4.5-km (3-mile) tunnel to cave in, but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.

Fifty to 60 workers were on the overnight shift at the time of the collapse, and those near the exit got out of the tunnel on the national highway that is part of the Char Dham Hindu pilgrimage route.

Earlier in the day, the disaster management office revised the number of people trapped since Sunday morning in the tunnel in Uttarakhand state to 41, up from 40.

“Our plan is to drill a 90 metres escape tunnel of 1.2 metres diameter,” said Jasvant Kapoor, a general manager at SJVN, a government owned company involved in the rescue efforts.

Close to 100 tunnel workers gathered at the site on Saturday, demanding faster progress in reaching and freeing those trapped.

Vishnu Sahu, a labourer who was leading the protest, said the rescue team was keeping workers in the dark about the pace of progress of the rescue.

“We want the top people of the company to come here,” Sahu said.

(Reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Silkyara; Writing by Ira Dugal; Editing by William Mallard, Tom Hogue and Alex Richardson)