Rescuers in India have freed 41 workers who had been trapped in a collapsed Uttarakhand tunnel for 17 days.

In Uttarakhand, miners manually drilled the final section of a 4.5 km (3-mile) tunnel to reach workers. Using a hand-operated drill, they successfully reached the workers in the tunnel.

People brought out in a stretcher, through a 90 cm (3 feet) wide pipe, were taken to the hospital for examination. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Efforts to rescue workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel, which collapsed on November 12, faced several setbacks. The mission finally succeeded on Tuesday evening, thanks to the efforts of a group of “rat-hole” miners who used hand-held drills to break the rock.

India’s President, Draupadi Murmu, expressed relief and joy on Twitter upon hearing that people had been freed. She praised the rescue efforts, acknowledging the challenges faced, which she described as a testament to “human endurance.”

As the workers emerged from the tunnel, they were warmly welcomed, and flower garlands were offered. Friends, family, and local residents gathered outside the tunnel, celebrating with fireworks and distributing sweets.

From the beginning of the rescue operation, those above ground were able to communicate with the trapped individuals through walkie-talkies. They were supplied with oxygen, food, and water through a separate narrow pipe.

The Silkyara tunnel is part of a major 890 km-long project worth 1.5 billion dollars (£1.19 billion), connecting major Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas through two-lane roads.

Due to a section of the tunnel collapsing due to landslides, teams attempted to remove a roughly 60-meter debris mound made of rocks and metal, which blocked the passage between people and the mouth of the tunnel. The goal was to create a horizontal escape route with a crawl-out pipe for the trapped workers.

Repeated cutting of metal rods in the debris mound hindered the rescue efforts, and loose soil slowed down progress. Last Friday, officials stated that employees would come out within a few hours, as long as the main drilling machine inside the tunnel didn’t break down completely.

When that happened, two dozen “rat-hole” miners were manually deployed to drill and clear the way for the trapped workers. Trained in navigating narrow tunnels, they used hand-held tools to dig the last few meters, clearing the debris for the laborers from some of India’s poorest states to reach them.

Afterwards, rescue workers, equipped with ropes, ladders, and stretchers, entered the tunnel, with 41 ambulances stationed outside to transport people to a hospital about 30 km away.

Rescue workers had also started drilling from the mountain’s summit to create an alternative rescue route under which the trapped individuals were located.

One of the rescue workers told the BBC, “The moment we emerged from the last part of the tunnel, there was an atmosphere of joy inside.” “The trapped people started clapping and cheering. Then the officials told them to stay calm, be patient. They assured them, saying, ‘We will bring each one of you out one by one.'”

The Uttarakhand government released a statement, expressing gratitude to both science and the divine for the successful rescue.

The rescued individuals, mostly men around the age of 20, are considered to be in good health. An official from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) informed the news agency ANI, saying, “Their condition is first-class and absolutely fine… just like yours or mine. There’s no concern about their health.” However, they were taken to a nearby hospital for medical evaluation.

The prolonged rescue operation had India in shock, with millions praying for the well-being of the male rescue workers.

On November 21, the first images of the trapped people came to light when a medical endoscopy camera was pushed into the tunnel through a drilled pipeline. Wearing helmets and construction worker jackets, approximately 12 people were found standing in the glow of the tunnel’s light in a semi-circle.

Environmentalists and residents have held rapid construction responsible for the collapse in the region, including the Char Dham project, and stated that it contributed to the tunnel’s failure.

The birthplace of the Ganges and its major tributaries, the Uttarakhand region, sustains over 600 million Indians with water and sustenance. The landscape is abundant with forests, glaciers, and waterfalls.

Significantly, India’s climate is impacted by this region, as its topsoil serves as a vital carbon sink – naturally absorbing and storing carbon dioxide to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

The project includes two main road tunnels – the Silkyara Tunnel and a smaller 400-meter-long tunnel in Chamba – along with tunnels designated for railway and hydropower projects.

Environmental activist Hemant Dhyani told the BBC, “In the last 15-20 years, there has been rapid progress in tunnel construction work.” “These mountains were not built for such massive construction projects.”

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