The first images emerged on Tuesday of 41 men trapped for more than a week in a highway tunnel in the Indian Himalayas, showing them standing in a confined space and communicating with rescue workers. The men are working on a road project near India’s Char Dham Hindu pilgrimage route and have been stuck in the 4.5 km (3-mile) tunnel in Uttarakhand state since it caved in early on Nov. 12. They are safe, authorities said, with access to light, oxygen, food, water, and medicines.
They can be seen in a video released by the government after a camera was sent into their work area through a pipe. A few of them wear construction worker jackets and helmets as they stand in a circle and appear to answer questions from rescuers outside. “We will bring you out safely, don’t worry,” a voice is heard saying. The video is the first visual contact with the men, who have been isolated beneath piles of debris in a site prone to landslides.
Rescuers have been exploring five new plans to pull the workers out. Still, progress has been hampered by repeated breakdowns of a drilling machine digging horizontally into the rubble to create a hole large enough for the trapped men to crawl through. A snag and a cracking sound during efforts to restart the machine on Friday caused panic among family members waiting anxiously for news, and officials decided to suspend the operation.
Drilling vertically into the rubble has also proved difficult due to unstable terrain. Authorities have drilled 24 meters (79 feet) so far but will likely need up to 60 meters to get to the workers. Authorities are considering other options, including drilling from the top of the tunnel.
The tunnel collapsed while being constructed in a mountainous area prone to landslides. It was part of a road network to cut travel times between India’s most popular Hindu shrines and improve access to strategic areas bordering rival China.
It was not clear what caused the collapse, but officials have blamed heavy rains in recent days. The workers were removing earth from the sides of the tunnel when it suddenly collapsed.
The work was being carried out by a subcontractor hired by the government to build the highway. The men, all low-wage laborers, were from poor states in India’s north and east. Their families are enduring days of anxiety and frustration over the sluggish rescue effort. Some have complained of dysentery. They receive nuts, puffed rice, and chickpeas via a small pipeline and have been told they will be given hot meals starting Tuesday. The government has set up a helpline for families of the trapped workers. A makeshift hospital has been opened, and doctors are monitoring the men’s health. Three of them have reported symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting, the district chief medical officer said. The plight of the trapped workers has drawn widespread attention in the country, with a petition circulated on Twitter calling for the government to expedite the rescue operation and ensure the men’s safety.