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After 17 Days, 41 Construction Workers Trapped in a Tunnel in India Are Rescued

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Updated: | Originally published:

All 41 construction workers who were trapped in the Silkyara tunnel in Northern India for 17 days have been freed after rescuers used hand drills to reach the workers. 

Images emerged Tuesday of the workers being greeted by officials and adorned with flower garlands. A rescuer told the BBC that “there was an outburst of happiness inside the tunnel" when they broke through and cleared the remaining debris.

"The trapped men started clapping and shouting in excitement. Then the officials asked them to keep calm, be patient. They told them, 'we will get you out one by one'." The men are expected to be individually pulled out of the tunnel using stretchers on wheels.

All the men were extracted from the tunnel within an hour on stretchers via a pipe that is 3ft in diameter. Rescuers had broken through the final meters of debris using a horizontal channel just hours earlier.  

The workers survived on a diet of dried fruits and nuts, puffed rice, and chickpeas. They received their first hot meal last week—a rice and lentil dish known as khichdi.

Rescue teams had been working around the clock to create a safe passageway for the workers to exit, facing setbacks due to faulty machinery that broke last week. But since turning to manual excavation, rescuers became optimistic on Tuesday that men would be freed before the end of the day.  

Here’s a timeline since the collapse.

Tunnel collapse

On Nov. 12, a 4.5-km highway tunnel that was being built as a way to ease travel to Hindu pilgrimage sites caved into itself, around 200 meters (656 ft.) from the tunnel’s entrance. Rescue efforts had  proven difficult because the tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand state, a mountainous region. 

The workers who were inside have been identified as migrant workers mostly in their 20s from northern and eastern Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. The rescue mission took longer than expected, leaving those trapped inside with limited access to food, water, and medicine.

Rescuers install a steel pipe to get supplies inside the tunnel

Rescuers installed a six-inch wide steel pipe to deliver food, water, and other supplies to trapped workers on Nov. 21.

Through the pipe, workers are being fed rotis, flat bread, lentils, and other dishes. Video of the workers also became available after the construction of the pipe. A separate pipe is delivering oxygen, as doctors monitor both the mental and physical health of those trapped.

Rescuers try drilling to reach workers inside

Rescuers initially planned on using a heavy drill to break through 60 meters (197 ft.) of debris from the landslide, but plans were paused on Nov. 24, when the machinery meant to drill a hole wide enough for the trapped workers to travel through was damaged.

Originally, the hope was the drill could push in a pipe that was wide enough to wheel out the trapped construction workers on stretchers, but the drill broke after it hit an obstacle on Friday, Reuters reported

Rescuers manually drilled through enough debris to finally reach the workers Tuesday. 

Final hours of rescue effort announced

In the early hours of Tuesday, officials said there was 5 meters (16 ft.) of debris separating them from the trapped workers, which sparked optimism after a lengthy effort.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami confirmed on social media platform X that the installation of a microtunnel was complete and the men would be rescued soon. 

Family and friends were camped at the rescue site, waiting to be reunited with their loved ones.

From the moment the first worker was evacuated from the tunnel, it took rescuers less than an hour to pull all of the men to safety, where they were greeted by officials. The Uttarakhand government confirmed that the operation was complete and that the men were not injured. 

Hospital beds are prepared for the men

Chinyalisaur health center has been put on high alert in preparation for the arrival of the workers. Ambulances were set to take the men from the rescue site to the hospital where 41 beds have been made up for treatment. The men are believed to be in fair health and reportedly kept active while trapped in the tunnel.

Helicopters have also been made available in the instance that any workers need treatment from facilities that are further away. 

While 41 beds were made available at the local health center in Chinyalisaur, authorities have since readied a larger hospital space at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh. The hospital is home to a trauma center and can be reached by helicopter if needed. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a statement

Taking to X, Modi praised the rescuers and the construction workers. "The success of the rescue operation of our labour brothers in Uttarkashi is making everyone emotional,” he wrote. 

"I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone. I wish you all well and good health. It is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait these friends of ours will now meet their loved ones,” the statement continued. 

Modi also lauded the “patience and courage” of the trapped workers' families, before celebrating everyone involved in the rescue efforts. “Everyone involved in this mission has set an amazing example of humanity and teamwork.”  

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com