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Uttarakhand tunnel collapse; American machine ‘Auger’ brought to save still trapped 40 Workers

According to officials, the trapped men are safe as they manage to establish communication through walkie-talkies and supply necessities including food and oxygen via a pipe typically used for water.

In a daring rescue operation entering its fifth day in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, on November 16, 2023, American-made “horizontal dry drilling equipment with auger” has been deployed to the site. The operation aims to save 40 workers trapped in an under-construction tunnel since it suffered a catastrophic collapse. According to Col. Deepak Patil, a former GM at National Highways & Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL), there’s a high probability that the rescue team’s plan B will succeed. Yesterday, the rescue plan faced a significant setback.

The auger machine, transported and installed to drill through the rubble and create a safe passage, struggled to carry out its tasks. This failure led to protests against the administration and construction company by the tunnel workers and local residents. However, despite the setback, the plan remains the same: implementing the “trenchless” technique to create a 900 mm wide passage using mild steel pipes that the trapped workers can safely crawl through. In the early morning hours of Sunday, the under-construction tunnel at the Yamunotri National Highway, designed to connect Silkyara and Dandalgaon in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, collapsed.

According to officials, the trapped men are safe as they manage to establish communication through walkie-talkies and supply necessities including food and oxygen via a pipe typically used for water. Over four days have passed since the workers, hailing from several states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh, got trapped in the collapsed tunnel. 

Uttarakhand Tunnel Collapse Highlights

Day 5: November 16, 2023

22:45 IST: Slow but Steady Progress At 22:45 IST on November 16, 2023, the rescue team slowly but steadily made progress toward reaching the trapped men in the Uttarkashi tunnel. Relief efforts saw a silver lining as a high-capacity drilling machine initiated the vital drilling process. This machine, flown from the national capital, was crucial for the operation to get back on track. Reports from the Uttarkashi District Emergency Operation Center revealed that by 4.30 pm on Thursday, the machine had successfully drilled through 9 meters of tunnel wall.

16:42 IST: Expert Insights and Plan B Confidence Later that day, at 16:42 IST, an expert shared insights into the factors that could have caused the tunnel collapse and possible avoidance strategies. Manoj Garnayak, a former project director at L&T and an expert in underground construction, suggested that the collapse might have been due to a loose patch of rock not visible during the tunnel’s construction. He noted that weak rock with multiple joints or water seepage eroding the rock over time could have led to structural failure. However, he emphasized that these are general interpretations and that a comprehensive investigation is awaited for a conclusive understanding of the incident.

11:54 IST: High-Capacity Drilling Success By 11:54 IST, updates from Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami suggested that he was in constant contact with PM Modi, and they were making every possible arrangement to ensure the safety of the trapped workers. CM Dhami reiterated that PM Modi was continuously monitoring the rescue operation.

9:44 AM: Health Concerns and Family Anxiety At 9:44 AM, the painstakingly slow progress of the rescue operation had caused the anxiety of the families of the trapped workers to spike. Among the worried were Uttarakhand resident Maharaj Singh Negi and his family, including the son of the trapped worker, Gabbar Singh Negi. He managed to get a word in with his father, ascertaining their well-being.

7:50 AM: Slow Progress and Supply Management At 7:50 AM, as the workers clocked over 80 hours trapped, health concerns arose. RCS Panwar, the Chief Medical Officer of Uttarkashi, shared that some workers were experiencing minor headaches and nausea. However, the supply of essential items, including medicines and food, was being secured through a six-inch pipe.

Day 4: November 15, 2023

15:21 IST: Protests Erupt Over Rescue Delays Protests broke out near the site of the Uttarkashi tunnel around 3:21 PM, according to local reports. Workers from various states expressed frustration over delays.

15:19 IST: Setback in Rescue Operations Around 3:19 PM, officials reported a setback in the rescue strategy. The plan to use an auger machine to drill through the rubble and install steel pipes fell through.

14:57 IST: Air Force to the Rescue At 2:57 PM, three special Air Force aircraft were transporting a 25-tonne heavy machine crucial for debris removal. This machine could potentially clear up to 5 meters of debris per hour.

14:16 IST: Replacement of Auger Machine The decision was made to replace the ineffective auger machine provided by Vardhman Engineering Works. Plans to set up a 125 mm pipe for air, food, camera, and communication were put in motion.

Day 3 and Earlier

13:46 IST, November 14, 2023: Trenchless Technique Adopted Rescue teams adopted a new tactic, abandoning traditional techniques, and opted for an innovative “trenchless” method to reach the trapped workers.

13:39 IST: Auger Machine Ineffective, Replacement Needed At 13:39 IST, the auger machine, initially intended to drill through the debris and install steel pipes, was incapable of accomplishing the task. Rescuers had to import a bulkier and more powerful unit from Delhi.

12:11 IST: Protesters Demand Release Protesters gathered at the site, demanding the immediate release of the trapped workers. Concerns about the supply of oxygen inside the tunnel were voiced.

11:32 IST: Protests Against Inaction By 11:32 IST on the fourth day, frustrated workers and residents began protesting against the perceived inaction of the administration and the construction company.

11:28 IST: Ongoing Rescue Operations Rescue operations continued, with workers tirelessly working to release those trapped inside the under-construction tunnel in Uttarkashi.

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