Europe 1 with AFP // Photo credits: Arun SANKAR / AFP 17:04 p.m., November 28, 2023

Indian rescuers have managed to rescue 41 workers trapped for 17 days in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel. The minister praised the "well-coordinated efforts" that led to "one of the largest rescue operations in recent years".

In a race against time, Indian rescue teams on Tuesday rescued 41 workers trapped for 17 days in the collapsed Silkyara tunnel, where ambulances were leaving the entrance to the site. "I am totally relieved and happy that 41 workers trapped in the collapse of the Silkyara tunnel have been rescued," said Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari.

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Well-coordinated efforts

The minister praised the "well-coordinated efforts" that led to "one of the largest rescue operations in recent years". The rescued men were draped in orange garlands of flowers as a celebration as they were greeted by state officials, according to government photos.

A crowd applauded their exit from the tunnel as emergency vehicles with flashing lights on prepared to leave the entrance to the site, where workers had been trapped since part of the structure collapsed in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand on November 12.

Family members of the workers who were waiting at the scene to finally see them confirmed that the exhausted men had been pulled out of the tunnel, dragged through the 57 meters of a steel pipe on stretchers specially equipped with wheels. Rescue teams had managed to lay the last section of the steel pipe that would free the 41 workers during the day.

Photos of the rescuers, circulated on social media, showed men smiling and waving victory as the drilling ended through the tons of earth, concrete and rubble that blocked workers. As night fell and the wait continued until the first man was released, relatives of the workers could no longer hide their relief.

Men imprisoned for 17 days

"We thank God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them," Naiyer Ahmad, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad is among the trapped workers, told AFP. Sudhansu Shah, who was also camping while waiting for his younger brother Sonu Shah to be released, said his relatives had begun celebrating the end of his ordeal. "We are really hopeful and happy."

After repeated setbacks, military engineers and miners worked manually to drill through the rock and rubble to clear the final stretch and reach the men who had been imprisoned for 17 days. Crews of three took turns digging and inserting the last parts of the steel tube, which was just wide enough to allow a man to pass through and allow the workers to evacuate.

When one was digging, a second was scooping out the debris by hand and the third was placing it in a cart to the exit, Rajput Rai, a drilling expert, was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency on Tuesday. The men also had to cut through a tangle of metal rods that hindered their progress.

Successive breakdowns

Since the tunnel collapsed, rescue efforts have been complicated and slowed by falling debris and successive failures of drills, which are crucial to rescuing workers. Another vertical borehole had also begun from the top of the forested hill overlooking the tunnel, a complex excavation operation above the men in an area that has already suffered a collapse.

The men had been surviving for more than two weeks on the delivery of air, food, water and electricity through a duct through which an endoscopic camera was introduced. This camera allowed their families to see them last week, for the first time. Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra paid tribute to the men who squeezed through the narrow steel pipe to manually clear the rocks. "It's a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is more often than not a matter of individual effort and sacrifice," he wrote on social media X.

The workers were trapped in an area inside the tunnel, which is 8.5 metres high and some two kilometres long. The Silkyara tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Char Dham highway project, designed to improve connections to four of the country's most important Hindu sites and also to China's border regions.