India considering new shaft to free trapped tunnel workers

UTTARAKHAND - Indian rescuers are considering opening a vertical shaft to free 41 men trapped in a collapsed tunnel after drilling at the site was paused over fears of further caveins and as efforts stretched into a second week.

Excavators have been removing earth, concrete and rubble from the under-construction tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand since last Sunday after a portion of the tunnel the workers were in collapsed.

Rescue efforts have been slowed by continued falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of the crucial heavy drilling machines, with the air force having to twice airlift in new kit.

Drilling through the tonnes of debris was paused late Friday, after a cracking sound created a “panic situation”, officials said.

Operations were then halted due to the possibility of “further collapse”, said the government’s highways and infrastructure company, NHIDCL.

Relatives of those trapped, who spoke to the men via radio, said conditions were grim and morale low. 

“They are in tears... they have started asking us whether we are lying about the rescue efforts being made to save them,” one relative told reporters late Saturday, without giving their name.

Engineers had been trying to horizontally drive a steel pipe about 90 centimetres (nearly three feet) wide through the debris -- wide enough for the increasingly desperate trapped men to squeeze through.

Bhaskar Khulbe, a senior government official involved in the rescue operations, said teams were now considering digging an entirely new shaft, including from above.

“We are exploring all options to save the workers,” Khulbe said late Saturday. “We have no shortage of resources, options and methods”.

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