Fears were mounting for 40 constructions workers who have been stuck in a collapsed tunnel for more than 72 hours, as rescue efforts were hampered by fresh debris and those inside began reporting illness.
The road tunnel, which had been under construction in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, collapsed in the early hours of Sunday after a landslide.
Dozens of migrant labourers were trapped 200 metres inside as the part of the roof caved in and the tunnel entrance was blocked by concrete rubble, rocks and twisted metal.
Since Sunday, a huge rescue operation has been under way, involving heavy machinery, more than 200 disaster management and rescue officials and engineers working to clear the debris. More than 20 metres of rubble has been cleared, but 30 metres more needs to be removed to reach the men.
Local district magistrate Abhishek Ruhela told reporters that “if everything goes as planned, the trapped labourers will be evacuated by Wednesday”.
Large 3ft-wide metal pipes were brought to the site on Tuesday in the hope of drilling a shaft through the debris and inserting the pipes, creating an escape passage for the workers. However, rescue efforts were set back as more rubble continued to fall and there was a fault with the drilling machinery.
“These are challenges in such rescue operations, but we will overcome them,” Ranjit Sinha, a disaster management official, said.
Oxygen and food packets containing dried chickpeas, dried fruits, almonds and puffed rice have been funnelled to the 40 labourers through small pipes which were inserted into the 40-metre cavity where the men are trapped.
Constant contact has also been maintained through walkie-talkies to keep the labourers calm and several of family members have been able to speak briefly to those trapped. “He said they are safe. He asked us not to worry,” the son of Gabbar Singh Negi, one of the 40 trapped workers, told reporters on Tuesday.
While officials said there was enough oxygen getting into the tunnel for the men to survive for five to six days, a doctor on site said several men had started to complain of worrying symptoms, including dizziness, fever and vomiting.
BS Pokriyal, a doctor on site who was communicating with the workers, told the Times of India: “People have started falling ill. We have supplied multivitamins, but we could not send an ORS [oral hydration] pouch as it may get stuck inside the only pipe being used to communicate and send across food and water.”
The three-mile (5km) long tunnel was being constructed in the district of Uttarkashi as part of the Char Dham road project, which aims to improve connectivity across the mountainous Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
However, the ambitious project has proved controversial, with environmentalists alleging that the heavy drilling and construction to build and expand the roads is causing subsidence, landslides and heavy environmental damage in the vulnerable Himalayan region.
The Uttarakhand government have formed an expert committee to investigate the causes of the tunnel disaster.