Forty-one Indian workers trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for 10 days were seen on camera for the first time on Tuesday trying to build a new passageway to free them.
One of the proposed routes is nearly half a kilometer (more than 400 miles) long.
The men, with thick beards and looking tired and anxious, could be seen staring into endoscope cameras sent by rescue workers through thin pipes through which air, food and water were delivered.
In footage released by state authorities, rescue workers can be heard saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out safely,” as the trapped men in helmets gather near the camera.
Excavators have been removing tons of soil, concrete and debris from a tunnel under construction since November 12 after part of the tunnel collapsed in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
But rescue efforts have been slow, complicated by falling debris and repeated failures of key heavy excavators, and the Air Force has had to fly in new kit twice.
– ‘Top priority’ –
Before the cameras were installed, rescue workers used radios to communicate with the men inside.
“All the workers are completely safe,” Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to get them out quickly and safely.”
Dhami said he spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the men, adding that Modi told him that freeing the workers must be a “top priority”.
Engineers were trying to drive a steel pipe horizontally just wide enough for the desperate crew to cut through at least 57 meters (187 feet) of dirt and rock blocking their escape.
However, the huge excavation machine they were using hit an impenetrable rock.
Excavation work along the route was temporarily halted on Friday after cracking sounds caused a “panic situation,” officials said.
– Complex operations –
Rescue teams are now preparing two new approaches to contact the men.
One involves excavating a vertical shaft from the forested hills above, requiring workers to excavate an entirely new track to the top to install the necessary heavy equipment.
Officials estimate that the proposed vertical shaft would need to be 89 meters (291 feet) deep, raising the possibility that complex excavations would be carried out above those in areas where collapses have already occurred. There is.
The other approach will be from the other side of the road tunnel, which will be a much longer route of over 450 meters, according to Indian media reports.
The tube used to deliver supplies to the men was expanded on Monday with the installation of a 15-centimeter (6-inch) pipe through which a camera was sent.
Drones are also expected to be flown to assess the stability of the area where the men are trapped.
Hot meals were also delivered for the first time through the new pipes.
“We sent food and 24 bottles of bananas to the trapped workers,” Abhishek Ruhera, a top local civil servant, told AFP.
Experts have warned of the impact of large-scale construction in Uttarakhand, where large parts of the state are prone to landslides.
The planned 4.5-kilometre tunnel aims to reduce travel times between the country’s most popular Hindu landmarks and improve access to strategic areas bordering rival China. It is part of the Prime Minister’s infrastructure plan.
Foreign experts have been drafted in, including Australian independent disaster investigator Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunneling and Underground Space Association.
“Those 41 people will be sent home,” Dix told the Press Trust of India news agency. “When exactly? I don’t know.”