Rescue teams in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi are battling against time to evacuate 40 construction workers who have been trapped under debris for over 120 hours following a tunnel collapse. The workers’ prolonged confinement within the tunnel is raising serious concerns about their health and well-being.
On November 12, a portion of the under-construction Silkyara Tunnel collapsed, trapping 40 construction workers within the debris. Elite rescue teams from Thailand and Norway, including the one that successfully rescued the trapped children from a cave in Thailand in 2018, have joined forces to aid in the ongoing rescue operation.
Rescuers have drilled up to 30 metres into the debris and have fitted five pipes to supply food and oxygen to the trapped workers.
Doctors have emphasised the need for comprehensive rehabilitation for the trapped workers, fearing that the prolonged confinement may necessitate both mental and physical recovery processes.
“It’s a very traumatic event and their current mindset would be very apprehensive, filled with uncertainty about their future and their survival. They could be feeling fearful, helpless, traumatized and frozen in time. They might not be able to really process things,” Dr Archana Sharma, consultant clinical psychologist at Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, Delhi, told PTI.
The trapped workers may also experience panic attacks due to the prolonged confinement in an enclosed space, said Dr Ajay Agarwal, Director of Internal Medicine at Fortis Hospital, Noida.
“Further, the ambient conditions such as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels too could impact their physical health and prolonged exposure to cold underground temperatures could possibly cause hypothermia and make them fall unconscious,” Dr Agarwal told PTI.
Doctors warned that construction sites often present a multitude of hazards, with falling debris being a major concern. The impact from falling objects can cause severe injuries, including fractures and open wounds. These injuries can be further complicated by the unsanitary conditions, increasing the risk of infection.
“As all the workers are collectively breathing in a closed space, carbon dioxide levels can heighten, exacerbating breathing problems,” said Dr Ajay Kaul, chairman, Cardiac Sciences, Fortis Hospital, Noida. “Lack of oxygen inside the tunnel can lead to asphyxia (suffocation) and that’s a serious problem.”
The deployment of an ‘American auger’ machine, airlifted from New Delhi, signaled a turning point in the rescue efforts. This specialised equipment, known for its efficiency and power, is expected to cut through 70 metres of rock, much of which came down from the roof during the rescue efforts, in an estimated 12 to 15 hours. The machine operates at a “theoretical speed” of 5 metres an hour.
The machine arrived in disassembled at the Chinyalisaur airport, located over 30 kilometres from the collapsed tunnel on the Char Dham pilgrimage route. The plan is to utilise this specialized machine to excavate a passage through the debris of the collapsed tunnel section, thereby creating a pathway to reach the trapped workers.
The under-construction tunnel is part of the ambitious Char Dham project, a national infrastructure initiative to enhance connectivity to the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri.