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Mission made possible: 41 Trapped Workers Rescued from Uttarkashi Tunnel by Rat-hole Miners

The rat-hole miners cleared the final debris barrier using bare hands and basic equipment, following a fortnight where US-imported machines drilled a channel marked by challenging obstacles.

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Nov 29, (The Street Press India) – Rat-hole miners, using their skill and courage, successfully cleared the stubborn mountain debris. After a challenging 16-day period filled with ups and downs, they rescued 41 trapped workers from the Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel.

With simple tools and sheer determination, the rat-hole miners manually cleared the final debris barrier. Despite a fortnight of challenges in a channel initially drilled by US-imported machines, they triumphed over numerous obstacles.

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Union minister V.K. Singh and Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami warmly greeted the workers. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) safely guided them through an escape passage formed by strategically inserting steel Hume pipes, spanning 57 meters through the rubble.

After successfully clearing 8-10 meters of debris, the rat-hole miners emerged, and the NDRF personnel then took charge. Using stretchers, they safely brought the workers through the passage. According to PTI, Chief Minister Dhami mentioned that the youngest among the trapped workers could crawl out independently and didn’t require the use of stretchers.

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The first of the 41 workers, in an ambulance, left the tunnel entrance after 8 pm. The rat-hole mining experts, brought in from Delhi with a promise to finish the job in 24 hours, successfully cleared the final stretch of rubble about an hour earlier. Chief Minister Dhami greeted the rescued workers with garlands as they walked out, while Union Road Transport Minister Singh patted them on the back and inquired about their wellbeing.

Throughout the relief and celebration of the successful worker extraction, it’s crucial to highlight that the rescue effort’s central theme was marked by trial-and-error ham-handedness. At no point did the nation rest assured that the operation was in expert hands with a clear plan. Until Tuesday evening, when the rescue became a visual reality, despair consistently overshadowed hope, indicating a lack of a well-thought-out rescue plan or reliable backup options.

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The operation involved various actors, both state and non-state, including Australian freelancer Arnold Dix, contributing to the rescue efforts. However, none instilled collective confidence in a cohesive plan or an inevitable breakthrough. When NDRF workers brought out the trapped laborers, the rat-hole miners emerged from the tunnel with smiles, their faces and hair covered in dust. This marked the end of an operation that commenced on November 12 and witnessed two imported auger machines airlifted to Silkyara getting mangled during the drilling process.

Trapped in a 240-meter chamber after the tunnel collapse on November 12 at 5:30 am, the workers received water, food, medicines, and oxygen through two pipes. Chief Medical Officer R.C.S. Panwar stated, “They (the rescued labourers) have been taken to the Chinyalisour community health centre for an initial medical examination. There are beds ready for them. If need be, they will be airlifted to AIIMS, Rishikesh, or some other multi-specialty hospital. They all are safe. They would be under medical supervision for 48 to 72 hours before they are sent back home.”

An anonymous medical officer noted, “They lived in crisis and without natural conditions for about 400 hours. This is bound to affect the mental condition of many of them. Its manifestation may appear after a day. It all depends on their spirit also. There are a dozen psychiatrists to treat them.” Munna Kumar, one of the rat-hole miners, mentioned, “We worked today without having lunch because we wanted to bring them out as soon as possible.” Six miners arrived in Uttarkashi on Monday morning, and another six at night. Munna added that in the afternoon, when only a narrow stretch remained to be excavated, they heard voices of the trapped laborers and promptly informed officials.

Mission made possible: 41 Trapped Workers Rescued from Uttarkashi Tunnel by Rat-hole Miners
Ambulances with rescued workers come out from the collapsed Silkyara Tunnel, in Uttarkashi district, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. PTI picture

During the rescue operation, a state government official mentioned that two rat-hole miners felt suffocated and emerged from the Hume pipe after an hour of work, gasping for breath. Doctors checked and administered medicine, while other miners entered the pipe channel. The official reported, “Those who were feeling sick were also back to work after 30 minutes of rest.”

The necessity of rat-hole miners arose on Sunday when rescuers determined that the heavy auger machine, having drilled through over 45 meters of the 57-meter rubble, couldn’t navigate the lattice, steel pipes, and other metallic obstacles in the last 12 meters. The auger, shaft, and rotor got stuck in the Hume pipe due to hitting metallic objects, leading to a halt in the operation.

Armed with traditional tools such as shovels, trowels, hammers, pans, a blower, a dust suction machine, and handheld drill machines, the rat-hole miners began their work on Monday around 10 pm. They focused on breaking and removing tunnel debris, including rocks and steel fragments.

An anonymous Uttarakhand government official shared, “Before that, two heavy auger machines, two dozen earth movers and other heavy drill machines, many Navratna companies, the Indian Railways, over 600 rescue workers from almost every agency in the country, many private companies, over 50 experts from across the world, two plasma cutters and a dozen gas-cutters had taken more than 360 hours to drill trough 49 metres of debris.

Surya Mohan Rai, one of the rat-hole miners who briefly emerged from the pipe in the afternoon, expressed, “We felt suffocated inside the Hume pipe. I felt a shortage of oxygen, but thought I should continue working because I could hear the muffled voices of the trapped labourers.”

Parsadi Lodhi, a rat-hole miner, explained their success, stating, “We can work in less oxygen and with old equipment. We can work in very little space. We can drill through obstructions while shrinking, bending or prostrating.”

Around 1:30 pm, members of the State Disaster Response Force hurried into the tunnel with marigold garlands, foldable beds, mattresses, pillows, black sunglasses, folding fabric bed dividers, wheeled stretchers, and ropes. All heavy machines, including earth movers, were driven out, and an ambulance entered the under-construction mountain tunnel in reverse gear.

As the commotion grew at the tunnel’s entrance, police set up a barrier, though the final rescue would still take several hours. Confusion heightened when Dhami tweeted at 2:07 pm: “With the blessings of Baba Baukhnagji, the prayers of crores of countrymen and relentless labour of the teams involved in the rescue operation, the work of laying the pipes to bring out the labourers has been completed. Soon, we will bring out all the labourer brothers.”

The lack of coordination became more apparent when Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, stated in New Delhi at 4:30 pm, “We have to clear two more metres to achieve a breakthrough. So far, the rat-hole miners have cleared 10 metres of debris in less than 24 hours with the support of the army in an operation that continues for the last about 400 hours.”

“We have been conducting this operation very carefully. There are 41 labourers trapped, but there are many more on this side who are involved in the rescue work. The lives of both are important for us and we need to retrain ourselves from making any premature declaration or rushing into anything,” Hasnain emphasized.

With eight beds equipped with oxygen cylinders, ECG machines, medical equipment, and medicines entering the tunnel, it seemed that the breakthrough was imminent.

Hasnain praised the country’s leadership for “bringing together the scattered resources from across the country for the job.” He highlighted the involvement of almost all ministries and credited the leadership for the collaborative effort, listing the names of participating companies.

Dhami, in a post-operation news conference, stated, “We wouldn’t have been successful without the support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” and announced a reward of Rs 1 lakh for every rescue worker.

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Sk Sahiluddin
Sk Sahiluddin
Sk Sahiluddin is a seasoned journalist and media professional with a passion for delivering accurate and impactful news coverage to a global audience. As the Editor of The Street Press India, he plays a pivotal role in shaping the editorial direction and ensuring the highest journalistic standards are upheld.
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