Some of the 41 workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in India have begun describing their 17-day ordeal, as the mammoth rescue operation gave way to emotional scenes of families being reunited.
The workers were all freed on Tuesday night after “rat-hole” miners using handheld digging tools broke through the final stretch of the 60m wall of debris that had shut them off from the outside world since a large portion of the tunnel collapsed on 12 November in Uttarakhand.
Speaking to the media for the first time, survivors recounted spending more than 400 hours trapped without fresh water, air or sunlight, as they encountered growing restlessness, hunger and even fears they would die – but did not lose hope.
Chamra Oraon, 32, a worker from Jharkhand state, said he tried to escape the tunnel when he realised it was collapsing but became trapped inside by the falling debris, beginning a struggle that stretched from hours into days and then weeks.
“I ran for my life but got stuck on the wrong side. As it became clear we would be there for a long time, we grew restless, hungry,” Mr Oraon told the Indian Express as he was being taken to the hospital following his rescue.
He said all the workers “prayed silently for help” but he “never lost hope”.
The workers had to wait some 24 hours after the collapse before the first food reached them from the outside, when rescuers sent in rice and cardamom seeds through a pre-existing pipe that was used deliver construction materials in and out of the tunnel.
“When we ate the first morsel, we felt someone above had reached out to us; we were overjoyed. We were assured we would be rescued, but needed to pass the time,” he told the newspaper.
“So we immersed ourselves in ludo on the phone, which we could charge with the supply provided to us, though we couldn’t call anyone since there was no network. We spoke among ourselves and got to know each other,” he said.
Speaking about how the 41 workers managed to relieve and clean themselves, Mr Oraon said they were using the natural hill water to clean themselves and had a designated place in the tunnel to relieve themselves.
“We believed in God and that gave us strength. We also believed that since 41 people are trapped, somebody would rescue us.
“I can’t wait to speak to my wife,” he added.
Among the emotional scenes captured in the immediate aftermath of the rescue was the moment when a trapped worker named Manjit, aged 22, was kissed on the forehead by his father, identified in media reports by his surname Chaudhary.
Mr Chaudhary had travelled to the tunnel entrance from Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri to await his son’s rescue and had previously spoken to the media about how he would never allow his son to work in a tunnel again, and that the family would instead start a small business or turn to a safer activity like farming at home.
The tunnel rescue in Uttarakhand has drawn national and international attention, and renewed focus on the hazards of building major infrastructure projects through the fragile Himalayan mountains.
Landslides are common in the region, and it is believed that one of these triggered the collapse on 12 November, trapping the 41 men behind a dense 60m wall of rocks mixed with concrete, iron and other construction materials that made it exceptionally difficult for heavy machinery to drill through.
Questions will inevitably be raised over how it took so long to get the men to safety, but it was not for a lack of state resource. The government estimates that 652 public workers from national and state agencies across India were involved in the rescue operation, while international experts and equipment were also brought in.
A US-made auger machine led the charge to break through the debris horizontally, but repeatedly broke down and was finally rendered irreparable with some 15m of the debris wall still to go.
An alternative plan was also launched to drill down vertically from the mountaintop, but this required extensive terraforming to create and access road and stable surface upon which to place another drill, and would have needed to cut through around 120m of rocks.
Nonetheless both plans proceeded simultaneously – and the breakthrough finally came when controversial rat-hole miners were brought in to drill through the last stretch on the horizontal route.
Manmohan Singh Rawat was the first rescuer to enter the tunnel after the last stretch of pipeline was laid, and said that the workers were “extremely happy” to see him.
“It was a little difficult to enter inside but we were trained very well…Three people went inside. The first worker rescued was the oldest among them…It took us around 1.5 hours to rescue all the 41 workers,” he told the ANI news agency.
He said a knotted rope was thrown towards the trapped men after they reached the end of the pipe inside the tunnel and they were pulled up into the pipe one-by-one while wearing safety gear.
The workers emerged together from the tunnel entrance shortly after 8pm to a heroes’ welcome, with officials placing garlands around their necks amid loud cheers of “long live mother India” from the hundreds of people present at the site.
The rat-hole miners who led the final breakthrough are being hailed for their extraordinary efforts, saying they worked on rotation without rest after reaching the site and were exhausted by Tuesday evening, but that their tiredness was taken over by excitement and happiness when they first saw the smiling faces of the trapped workers.
Rat-hole mining is a controversial practice that involves teams using hand-held drills in very tight spaces, while others remove muck and broken rock back down the shaft. It has traditionally been used for small coal veins in India’s northeast but was banned by regulators after a series of deadly flooding incidents.
“The workers were so happy seeing us. They hugged us and offered us almonds,” Devendra, one of the miners, told NDTV.
“We cut 15 metres. We were very happy when we reached there and got a glimpse of them,” said another.
Their team leader said the miners worked non-stop for 24 hours and it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us” to prove ourselves and help the country in its time of need.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who officials said was closely monitoring the whole operation, spoke to the workers through a video link and said he was emotional as the 41 men have received “a new life”.
“I want to tell the men who were trapped in the tunnel that your bravery and patience are inspiring everyone,” he wrote.
“I also salute the spirit of all the people associated with this rescue operation. Their bravery and determination have granted a new life to our labourer brothers. Everyone involved in this mission has set an amazing example of humanity and teamwork,” added Mr Modi.
Mr Chaudhary, who came with a backpack to accompany his son Manjit to the hospital, was asked by a television reporter what he had brought for his son in the bag.
It is “nothing”, he said. “We have nothing, so what can I take for him?” he said with a smile and opened the bag to show it only contained some clothes.
“The clothes I am wearing were also given to me [by volunteers],” he said. “I will tell him, ‘Son, I am very happy today. The whole country, even the trees and plants, are happy’”.