At 3.45am on Tuesday morning, the first grainy visuals were seen of a man in a blue hard hat peering into the six-inch pipeline. From one end, there was the booming voice of rescuers, looking on anxiously. “Are you okay?” the rescuer asked. The man in the hat responded, “I am okay.”
In the moments that followed, rescuers asked the men on the other side to pull the endoscopic camera at the end of a 53-metre flexible cable out slowly, and told them that they would reach them soon. Soon, a small screen that the rescuers were peering into were filled with images of a collapsed, but cavernous tunnel, and a group of men; tired but very much alive.
Ten days after an under-construction tunnel between Silkyara and Barkot in Uttarkashi on the national highway that is part of the Char Dham project collapsed, rescuers were finally able to establish video communication with the 41 workers that have been trapped inside. Reassuringly, the visuals confirmed that the men were all alive, that they had access to electricity with lights visible on in the background, had been drinking water, eating, and taking walks. The visuals renewed hope that the prolonged but difficult rescue operations would be successful.
Even as barrelling into the collapsed tunnel to create pathways through which the 41 men can be evacuated has proved difficult, there was breakthrough on Monday evening when rescuers were able to insert a second six-inch pipe into the debris. This has allowed the two-way video communications, as well as hot cooked food being sent to the stranded men. Thus far, from November 12 when the tunnel first collapse, rescuers were only able to send dry food such as puffed rice and chickpeas through a four-inch pipeline, and were only able to communicate through walkie-talkies, or shouting through the pipe.
On Tuesday morning, seven minutes after the endoscopic camera was first transported in, visuals showed a group of labourers standing in a clearing inside the tunnel. Rescuers asked the trapped men to clean the lens of the camera with cloth, and identify themselves. One man, for instance, said he was Vishwajeet from Jharkhand.
Six minutes later, rescuers asked the men to put the camera back in the same pipe that it had emerged from. “We will now clean the pipe with water and compressed air. Drop the camera, we are taking it back,” the official said.
Before that happened however, one of the stranded men, identified as Jaidev, approached the camera, and spoke in Bengali, with a message for his mother. “Don’t worry, I am fine inside. Please eat your meals on time,” he said.
Lines of communication being established enthused the family members of those inside. Indrajeet, Vishwajeet’s brother, said, “I am finally sure that he is well. When I used to speak to him through the previous narrow pipe and he would tell me he is fine, I would think he was just pretending. Now I can see him and only pray that he comes out soon.”
Hot khichdi was then sent to the men in cylindrical bottles. Ravi Roy, a cook employed by the Navayuga Engineering Company Limited (NECL) which had been constructing the tunnel, said: “As instructed to us by officials, we sent 750 grams of khichdi each per person. We also sent fruit, apples, and sweet lime juice.”
State government doctors deployed outside the tunnel said that a diet chart has now been prepared for the sustenance of the workers. Dr Prem Pokhriyal, one of the doctors said, “Initially they will get light food like khichdi and dalia for the health of their gut, as eating solid food immediately after a prolonged deficiency of proper nutrition can cause problems.”
In Delhi, Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), hailed the moment as a major breakthrough. “Now that the pipelines have been doubled and we have a four-inch and a six-inch pipeline, we are doing trials to send hot food. Although the six-inch pipeline has been constructed, we still need to confirm how quickly we can pass materials through compressed air, and we will only able to able to fully understand that by later today or tomorrow,” Hasmain said.
Anurag Jain, secretary in the ministry of road transport and highways, said they were considering sending in warm clothing such as shawls. “But we now know that when the tunnel is trapped from both ends, it is not cold inside, and is actually quite warm. They will be able to feel the cold temperature only when they come outside,” Jain said.
With communications established, and an assurance that the trapped workers are safe, senior officials in charge of operations said that they would turn their attention to secure methods of extricating the stranded people, with five plans in motion concurrently.
Since November 12, at least three approaches have failed, the most advanced of which is a 22-metre tunnel that has been drilled into 65-70 metres of debris at the Silkyara end by an American auger machine. Officials said that they were now working on restarting this process as their first priority.
“The auger was supposed to be the best and fastest way but when complications arose on November 12, we stopped all efforts to avoid further complication. If the augers work, Union minister Nitin Gadkari has said that two or a two-and-a-half days will be needed,” Jain said. On Tuesday, officials said that they were welding the pipeline, making changes to the diameter of the auger drill, and creating a protective canopy for rescue workers.
The other options include two horizontal drilling sites; one from the Barkot end, and another that will see the tunnel approached sideways from near the Silkyara end, and two sites identified on top of the tunnel where vertical drilling is conceivably possible.
Through Wednesday, officials said the new pipeline will be put to use again funnelling through solid food such as chapati and cooked vegetables. But the moment that the families of those stranded inside will wait for the most is the time when the endoscopic camera reaches the other end. Jaimal Singh Negi, for instance will be back at the screen hungrily for visuals of his 51-year-old brother Gabbar Singh Negi.