New Delhi, India
Cheers greeted a group of 41 workers as they were successfully extricated from a collapsed tunnel under the Himalayas on Tuesday, the culmination of a 17-day rescue operation to excavate rock and debris.
It took weeks to dig an escape route for the workers through the mountain, with the last two meters dug by hand, before the rescued men eventually emerged.
Video footage from the scene showed Pushkar Singh Dhami, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, meeting with the workers, who appeared to be in good health, as they emerged from the tunnel amid jubilant scenes.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the successful rescue operation “makes everyone emotional.” In a statement on X.
“I want to tell the men who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience inspire everyone,” he wrote.
“I also salute the spirit of all the people associated with this rescue operation. Their courage and determination have given new life to our fellow workers. Everyone involved in this mission has set a wonderful example of humanity and teamwork,” Modi added.
The men had been trapped since November 12 when part of the tunnel they were helping to build in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand collapsed, blocking their only exit with more than 60 meters (200 feet) of broken rock, concrete and twisted metal.
The first workers were removed after a series of traumatic setbacks, during which rescue efforts were halted when heavy machinery used to dig through the rubble broke down, forcing the workers to dig partly by hand and adopt other, more dangerous methods to get them to safety.
Engineers had previously attempted to extract debris from the exit shaft using heavy machinery, but were forced to abandon their efforts late Friday after the powerful American-made drilling tool they were using broke down just meters away from the trapped men.
Rescuers were also simultaneously digging through the unstable mountainous terrain as a backup means to reach the trapped men. But in the end, the initial plan proved successful.
With the excavation completed, rescuers then pushed a large pipe through the last part of the exit shaft so the men could be moved to safety.
The workers, all migrant workers from some of India’s poorest states, are receiving food, water and oxygen through a 53-meter (173-foot) tube inserted through the rubble and authorities say they remain in good health.
Doctors on site kept in regular contact with the men inside, giving them advice on how to stay positive and calm. Their families gathered at the tunnel exit every day to pray for their safe return.
The tunnel is part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham Expressway, a controversial multi-million dollar development project. The country’s transportation network and improved connectivity to important Hindu pilgrimage sites in the region.
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