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Uttarkashi Tunnel Rescue: Families Of 41 Trapped Workers Wait With Bated Breath To See Light At The End Of The Tunnel

It is an agonising wait, one with bated breaths for the families of the 41 workers who are trapped inside the collapsed Uttarkashi's under-construction Silkyara Barkot tunnel. Some bring 'Gangajal' to pray for the safe return of their loved ones

Rescue efforts at the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi
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It is an agonising wait, one with bated breaths for the families waiting outside. Forty one lives inside the collapsed Uttarkashi's under-construction Silkyara Barkot tunnel still have no idea when their ordeal will be finally over. Yet, there is a ray of hope on both sides about the ongoing multi-option rescue operation making significant headway in the coming days, if not immediately.

A wife and mother of four, including three daughters, who travelled all the way from Bihar‘s Banka district, struggled to fight her tears when she spoke to her husband Virender Kisku through the 6 inch pipe, installed through the debris inside the tunnel for two-day communication, and also for sending food, fruits, medicines, and water.

“It was a surprise for him to know I had arrived. His voice was soft and strong. He asked me about children, his parents and me. I told him, he will be out soon. The company is making all efforts for his safe return out of the tunnel. We will not go back till he reunites with us. I also asked him to stay strong,” Rajni, 40, told Outlook on Tuesday after a brief conversation with her husband, almost 11 days after he along with 40 others got stranded inside the collapsed tunnel.

A father, brother and a tunnel engineer's own brother-in-law are also trapped inside. A mother, whose eyes are flooded with tears cries, “Get my child out. I will die if something happens to him. I don't want him to work inside the tunnel anymore."

Javar Singh Negi, 51, who is trapped inside the tunnel asked his brother Jaimal Singh Negi from Pauri Garhwal about the well being of their mother -- a widow. He asked him to go back home and be with their mother. "I will come home soon tell Maa. She will be worried about me," he advised.

Mohammad Naushad, whose brother-in-law Sabah Ahmed, 28, is among the trapped workers says, "Every passing day is hard and we spend nights sleepless. Sabah has four years experience of working in the tunnel with the company (Navayuva Engineers) but he never faced a situation of confinement like this. My sister (Sabah's wife) is going through one of most difficult times of her life ever since we heard about him. I could not stop myself boarding train to Uttarakhand and reaching here."

There are 15 workers from Jharkhand, the highest number, besides others from Bihar, Assam, UP, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh.

The families and close relatives, who have reached at Silkaya—a remote small village of Uttarkashi,150 km from Dehradun—Uttarakhand’s capital, share similar emotions even as the rescue officials are constantly updating them on rescue efforts, taking them inside the tunnel to make them talk to the workers and assuring complete safety. They have some hopes about the rescue but are not too sure when it would be completed.

The families and relatives are lodged in buildings next to the tunnel and are being served meals as well.

“We are constantly interacting with them, keeping their morale high and asking them not to weaken the spirits of the workers inside whenever they talk to them. Right now operation is going well. The major breakthrough was installation of 6 inch pipe on Monday, which has become a virtual lifeline for us to establish contact with the workers and send medicines, hot healthy meals, especially khichdi,” says Abhishek Ruhela, Deputy Commissioner, Uttarkashi – who is also camping here.

All workers are safe and are being supplied food as per medical advice. Earlier they were being fed dry fruits, popcorns, chickpeas, and cashews to boost their immunity. The new 6-inch pipe has also improved the ventilation side. There is sufficient light inside. Two-way communication is already established. It's definitely a considerable success though the focus is to bring all the men out, safe and sound, he says.

A three member team of Jharkhand government led by a joint labour commissioner has also reached to coordinate with administration. "We have a list of all workers and contacts of their families. We have told them to stay back home as the government will take care of all 15 workers once they are rescued. We will take them back along with us," an official said.

The under-construction tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Char Dham project, a national infrastructure initiative to enhance connectivity to the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. Thus, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is constantly monitoring the progress of the rescue and giving directions on using multiple options to reach out to the trapped workers.

An endoscopic camera, which was sent in through the pipeline on Tuesday helped in capturing live images of the trapped workers for the first time after their confinement inside the tunnel. It also raised hopes of anxious relatives who were concerned about their well-being and proper nutrition.

“Today, I am very happy. My son Manjit sounded in good health and he told me papa you take care of yourself. I will be finally out,” a smiling father told TV cameras in front of the tunnel after he returned to the camp site.

Chaudhary (his name) had lost his one of his sons a few years back and reached Uttarkashi from Bihar to see his only son survive the tragedy and return safe.  "I can’t afford to lose him. I am praying all the time to Vaishno mata. I will take him to Maa (Vaishnodevi)," he says.

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There are families who have brought Gangajal to the site. A priest was called inside to perform rituals in the hope that the operation would end soon with all 41 workers coming alive.

The National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) which is assisted by multiple agencies like NDRF, SDRF, BRO, Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) Ltd, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Tehri Hydro-electric Development Corporation, and several other agencies are working on a five-point plan to drill and make way through the debris.

"Vertical drilling of the tunnel is the job assigned to SJVN Ltd keeping in view our tunnelling experience. We have mobilised pipe rig machine which can bore vertically upto 45 meters. Then another bigger machine is arriving in next 24 hours from Orissa which can bore upto 80-85 meters. We have a timeline to complete the task by November 26," says team leader Akshay Archara with 11 other engineers and geologists.

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As per Manasi Sahay Thakur, IAS officer, who had led the Bilaspur tunnel rescue operation in 2015 in Himachal Pradesh, "When things failed horizontally, we succeeded vertically to save all the lives. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami ji spoke to me and I shared with him my case study."

International tunnelling expert Arnold Dix, who is a globally-acclaimed expert in tunnel safety and rescue, is also part of the operation. He says, "We are knocking multiple doors. We don't know which door will open first.Yet, I am very optimistic about this operation ending – with a lot of relief and satisfaction. All men will be safely brought out unlike some very tough and bad operations I have seen and handled.”

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He, however, refused to give any deadline as to when the operation will be completed. “This word dead(line) is horrifying. I don't want to use this term. I am 100 per cent hopeful of success. Things are going in the right direction. It will take time to bring the workers out but it's a sure success,” he told Outlook on the sidelines of the operation.

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, who flew here on Sunday said rescue efforts are vigorously underway. There are challenges due to soil strata, obstacles inside and several other hindrances yet all teams are working hard to save the lives of 41 workers. "The operation was being carried out while keeping the morale of workers and their family members high.” he assured.

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