Trapped in a Tunnel for 15 Days, With No End in Sight

Over the two weeks that dozens of Indian construction workers have been trapped in a Himalayan road tunnel, the authorities have reported meter-by-meter progress toward reaching them and offered hopeful timelines for their rescue. Each time a breakthrough has appeared imminent, politicians have rushed to the scene.

Yet 15 days after disaster struck, the 41 men are still stuck. Multiple attempts at boring through rubble have failed. And now, as Indian officials try a new tack — drilling down through the top of a mountain — they acknowledge that the effort will take several days, if it works at all.

“We feel a looming sense of doom,” said Jyotish Basumatary, whose brother, Sanjay Basumatary, is trapped inside. “But we are holding on tight. We cannot afford to give up hope.”

Jyotish, who works in a different part of the tunnel project and has been helping with the rescue endeavor, said he is now worried that colder weather would make the effort even more complicated. If it rains, “the workers’ hands would freeze,” he said by phone.

The 41 construction workers became stranded on Nov. 12 in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand after a landslide in the delicate mountain landscape caused a collapse in the tunnel they were building as part of a road construction project.

Shortly after the accident, officials were able to confirm that the men were safe and started communicating with them. Food, water, oxygen and medicine were sent in through pipes into the tunnel.

For many of their families, the only updates on the situation inside the tunnel have come from news reports. Their concerns eased a bit on Tuesday, when the authorities managed to send an endoscopy camera through the pipes, and the first images of the workers emerged.

The video showed the men standing in the tunnel and wearing hard hats, with a bright light shining behind them.

Their ordeal has stretched on as efforts to cut through the debris trapping them inside have hit a series of setbacks. Hundreds of officials and workers involved in the rescue were forced to turn to contingency plans, flying in machinery from other parts of India and bringing in experts from abroad.

Late last week, the authorities reported progress on an effort to insert pipes into the tunnel that would be used to extract the men. Officials had turned to the pipes after previous efforts to cut through the debris had caused more debris to fall.

But that work also hit a roadblock, after the auger machine being used to pierce through the rubble broke in the final stretch of drilling.

Sohan Singh, who is in charge of the district emergency operation center in Uttarkashi, the site of the tunnel, said the rescue effort was now focusing on several options simultaneously.

First, officials are working to extract and repair the broken auger machine, he said. Plan B is the work to drill down from the mountaintop. Plan C is to dig a tunnel from another side of the mountain.

Mr. Singh said that the auger remained the priority. New auger machines have arrived from other parts of the country, and drilling could resume after the broken machine is removed, he said.

As the work inched along last week, those involved said they were proceeding with extreme caution.

“We have a mountain that is unhappy; we know there has been an avalanche,” Arnold Dix, an international tunneling expert, told reporters gathered outside the tunnel. “To open the door safely, it means we have to bring extra care.”

The tunnel is part of a road project intended to provide quicker access to four major Hindu shrines. Access to pilgrimage sites has been a big part of the agenda of the governing Hindu nationalist party.

But the construction has faced criticism from environmentalists, including a committee appointed by India’s Supreme Court. They have warned that the landscape, with its frequent landslides and flooding, has become increasingly fragile as the planet warms.

Experts and news reports have raised alarms about how the country conducts environmental assessments for such projects. The procedures are so weak and vulnerable to political manipulation that disasters could be repeated, they said.

Most of the workers trapped in the tunnel are from India’s poorer states, such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam, places where many people leave to pursue employment elsewhere.

The first images of the trapped workers after an endoscopy camera was sent in through pipes last week.Credit…Uttarakhand Department of Information and Public Relations, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Sanjay Basumatary, who had been working at the site since the summer, earns about $250 a month. His bother said the landslide occurred about three hours before Sanjay’s shift was to end on the morning of Nov. 12.

Jyotish Basumatary said he had spoken to his brother four times by shouting into a pipe. His brother had been surviving on raisins, cashews and almonds before the bigger pipe was inserted and a concoction of lentils and rice could be sent in bottles.

It is impossible to know how the men are holding up psychologically, Mr. Basumatary said. “We called out their names, and one by one they lined up — we could see them on the camera. But nobody spoke about how they felt,” he said.

Mr. Basumatary said his family back home was “restless, dejected and angry.”

“We want to know why an alternate escape was not prepared even before the work of the tunnel was begun,” he said.

The Indian news media reported that the same section of the Uttarakhand tunnel gave way in 2019, causing a delay in the work but no casualties. More than 200 people were killed after a flash flood trapped workers and residents near a major hydropower project in the region in 2021.

“One cannot survive without development,” said Sushil Khanduri, a former geologist with the state’s disaster management authority. “But at what cost? Development has to go hand in hand with the environment.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

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