Rescue efforts in India have stretched into a seventh day as emergency response teams race to retrieve 40 construction workers trapped underground since Sunday.
The workers became stranded when a highway tunnel they were building partially collapsed in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
Rescue teams had been drilling non-stop to reach the stranded workers since acquiring a high-powered drilling machine on Thursday, but given the fragile mountain terrain, there were concerns of more debris falling and further complicating the rescue efforts.
“We have decided to go with a pause-and-go approach to maintain the equilibrium,” Anshu Manish Khalkho, director of state-run highway management company National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) told the media on Friday evening local time.
Videos posted on social media show rescue work paused with no drilling activity reported overnight Friday into Saturday.
Khalkho told reporters that rescuers, with the help of the high-powered drilling machine, have so far drilled about 25 meters (82 feet) inside the collapsed Uttarkashi tunnel – that’s about one-third of the way to the trapped workers.
The rescuers 60 meters of debris between themselves and the trapped men. According to Khalkho, pipes designed for the rescue mission have been successfully inserted into approximately 25 meters (82 feet) of the debris. However, there remains an additional stretch to cover before reaching the 40 workers.
The 25 meters of pipe, which are approximately 900 millimeters in diameter, are being inserted into the freshly drilled hole and being welded together, Khalkho explained.
These interconnected pipes will provide an escape passage for the stranded men, enabling them to move beyond the section of the tunnel that has collapsed.
“It may look easy from the outside, but on-site we have to factor in the effects of the drilling vibrations on the fragile terrain,” Khalkho told reporters when questioned on the duration of the rescue mission, which entered its seventh day on Saturday.
He also confirmed that a backup drilling machine is being airlifted from Indore city in the central state of Madhya Pradesh in India, to assist in the rescue operations. Reuters reported Saturday that the initial drilling machine broke on Friday and needed to be replaced.
Separately, Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami also assured the press that the rescue work is on track with the “engineers and experts from NHIDCL working relentlessly.”
He added that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “reviewing the situation.”
A special team from the Prime Minister’s office has also arrived at the tunnel collapse site to review the situation.
The tunnel is part of Modi’s ambitious Himalayan Char Dham Highway project, a multimillion-dollar infrastructure plan to improve connectivity in the state of Uttarakhand and better access to important pilgrimage locations.