The Indian authorities have released a video offering the first glimpse of 41 construction workers who have been trapped in a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas for more than nine days.
The video was captured using an endoscopic camera fed through a small newly-drilled pipeline, and has brought some relief to family members enduring an anxious wait for the workers’ rescue.
Released on social media by the chief minister of Uttarakhand state, where the workers are trapped, the video shows the men wearing yellow helmets, milling around and receiving food.
The 41 workers were trapped when a portion of the tunnel they were building collapsed during a landslide at around 5.30am on 12 November. Efforts to drill through around 60m of fallen rocks and debris to reach the workers have proved extremely challenging, and rescuers are now simultaneously trying to dig down vertically from the surface.
The release of the video comes after a wider six-inch pipeline was successfully inserted through the fallen debris. Earlier the trapped workers were receiving oxygen, water, small food packets and anxiety medication through various thinner tubes.
Rescue operation leader Colonel Deepak Patil said that through this alternative pipeline, “we can send food, mobiles, and chargers inside the tunnel”.
The workers are now being served hot meals in larger quantities, as well as maintaining constant communication through walkie-talkies.
Colonel Patil said the workers were now able to request specific food items to be sent into the tunnel.
“This is just one step,” he told the Indian Express, “through which we can send them (better) food, mobile phones, chargers, and also talk to them. We have made a list after talking to doctors, and are preparing food based on their suggestions.”
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said on Tuesday that the government was focussing on the horizontal drilling that will create a shaft in a newly devised rescue strategy for the stranded men.
“This is not an easy challenge, so we are exploring every option. All the teams are working on it, that is the only assurance I can give. Can’t establish the timeframe,” he said.
“The families have been accommodated in the hotels in a built-up area. In one or two cases, they were even able to talk…. (to the workers). The more the families talk to them, better will be the morale,” Mr Ata Hasnain added.
National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL) director Anshu Manish Khalkho called it the “first breakthrough” at the site.
“We have sent the pipe 53 metres to the other side of the rubble and the trapped workers can hear and experience us,” he said.
“First achievement, big achievement. The next step is the more vital one and the most important – that’s to get them out intact, happy,” Col Deepak Patil, another NHIDCL senior official, said.
Some workers were also able to convey messages to their families for the first time on Tuesday morning. One of the trapped workers identified by NDTV as Jaidev sent a message to his mother via the supervisor at the tunnel collapse site. He said: “Mother, do not worry about me, I am fine. Please you and father eat your meals on time.”
Earlier, rescue officials said the new approach to drill down to the workers from the surface could take another four or five days, and there are concerns for the physical and mental health toll such a long period confined could have on the men. A medical camp has been set up near the tunnel entrance for check-ups once the workers are freed, and 10 ambulances are being kept on standby.
Dr Abhishek Sharma, the psychiatrist who is overseeing the mental health of the trapped workers, told the Indian Express: “We’ve kept constant contact, suggesting activities like yoga, walking, and encouraging conversations among them to maintain high morale.
“Among those trapped inside is one Gabbar Singh Negi, who has been in a similar condition before. Being the oldest among them, he is ensuring everyone’s confidence remains high.”
The men were working on the Char Dham highway, one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites in the mountains through 890km (550 miles) of roads at a cost of $1.5bn (£1.2bn).
Earlier, the rescue operation was hindered after parts of an auger – a machine used to drill steel pipes through rubble – broke upon contact with a boulder. Another auger drilling machine has been transported to the site from Delhi, but there are also concerns over the stability of the site as a whole.
There is sufficient water and oxygen inside, Mr Ata Hasnain said on Tuesday. “Power and ration were made available.”
“There’s ample space inside. There is approximately 2 km space. Lighting is available inside. A 4-inch pipe was available which didn’t get destroyed so we had a lifeline.”