By Saurabh Sharma
SILKYARA, India (Reuters) -Rescuers on Monday pushed through a new pipeline to deliver cooked food to 41 workers trapped for more than a week in a collapsed tunnel in the Indian Himalayas and said preparations were under way to start vertical drilling to pull them out.
The men have been stuck in the highway tunnel in Uttarakhand state since it caved in early on Nov. 12 and are safe, authorities said, with access to light, oxygen, dry food, water and medicines already being sent by a smaller pipe.
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.
“We have been able to achieve a breakthrough of pushing through a six-inch pipe,” said Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of the state-run National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) which is building the tunnel.
Khalkho said horizontal drilling through the debris – which had been suspended on Friday after a snag in the machine and fears of a fresh collapse – would resume now that the new pipeline had been pushed through but he did not give a timeline.
The men have been receiving nuts, puffed rice, chickpeas and other dry food via the smaller pipe. They are confined in a 2-km stretch of the tunnel and not 50 metres as earlier reported, authorities said.
They will now get hot food including rice, lentils, soybeans and peas, Prem Pokhriyal, a doctor who speaks to the trapped workers, told Reuters.
“Today, they demanded chewable vitamin C tablets and it was provided,” Pokhriyal said. “As of now, everyone seems fit and fine.”
Besides the horizontal drilling, rescuers are exploring five new plans to pull out the workers including drilling vertically from the top of the mountain.
Khalkho said new, heavy machines for vertical drilling would arrive by road in a day or two. The state-run Border Roads Organisation is building hill paths for the machines from both ends of the tunnel and one would be ready late on Monday or on Tuesday, district official Abhishek Ruhela said.
Desperate families of nine of the 41 men have reached the tunnel site in Silkyara, high in the hills of Uttarakhand. The trapped men are low-wage workers, mostly from poor states in the north and east of India.
“I went inside the tunnel to talk to my brother through the steel pipe and he asked me if the government is actually working to save them or not,” said Ashok Kumar, whose brother Santosh Kumar, is one of the 41.
“For how long can he survive inside eating this puffed rice and chickpeas? For how long will they be inside?” Ashok said.
(Reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Silkyara, Additional reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Nick Macfie)