Rescuers attempt manual digging to free 41 Indian workers trapped for over 2 weeks in tunnel

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Indian army personnel prepare to deploy a small excavator at the site of an under-construction road tunnel that had collapsed in Silkyara in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, India on Nov 26. (AP)

NEW DELHI, Nov 27, (AP): Authorities in India said on Monday they were set to begin manual digging of what they hoped was the final phase of rescuing the 41 construction workers trapped in a collapsed mountain tunnel in the country’s north for over two weeks.
Rescuers have started to drill vertically – an alternate plan to digging horizontally from the front – with a newly replaced drilling machine excavating about 32 meters (105 feet), according to officials.
Devendra Patwal, a disaster management official at the site, said they were prepared for all kinds of challenges, but hoped they wouldn’t face stiff resistance from the mountain.
“We don’t know what the drilling machine will have to cut through. It could be loose soil or rocks. But we are prepared,” he said.
So far, rescuers have excavated and inserted pipes – after digging horizontally – up to 46 meters (150 feet), welded together to serve as a passageway from where the men would be pulled out on wheeled stretchers.
The drilling machine broke down repeatedly because of the mountainous terrain of the area and was damaged irreparably on Friday and had to be replaced.
Rescuers worked overnight to pull out parts of the drilling machine stuck inside the pipes so manual digging could start, said Patwal.
The workers have been trapped since Nov. 12 when a landslide in Uttarakhand state caused a portion of the 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel they were building to collapse about 200 meters (650 feet) from the entrance.
The vertical digging, which started Sunday, required the rescuers to excavate about 106 meters (347 feet). The length is nearly double the approximately 60 meters (196 feet) they need to dig through horizontally from the front.
They could also face similar risks or problems they encountered earlier that damaged the first drilling machine attempting to cut through rocks. The high-intensity vibrations from drilling could also cause more debris to fall.
As the rescue operation entered its 16th day, uncertainty over its fate has been growing. Some locals offered Hindu prayers near the tunnel.
What began as a rescue mission expected to take a few days has turned into weeks, and officials have been hesitant to give a timeline.
Some officials were hopeful that the rescue mission would be completed last week. Arnold Dix, an international expert assisting the rescue team, however, told reporters he was confident the workers would be back with their families by Christmas, suggesting they were prepared for a longer operation.

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