22-year-old Sayeb Ali and 21 others were on duty that morning. While four workers remained above ground, 18 workers including Sayeb Ali entered a deep coal mine in Meghalaya in the early hours of December 13. Soon after entering, they branched out to different rat hole arteries of the mine. Mr Ali was worried. He had seen and reported the seepage in the mine a couple of days earlier to the labourers' sardar or manager. As he was leaving the mine with his load of coal, he heard the gush of water and knew the seepage had become a deadly flood. Mr Ali, who is the lone eyewitness of the accident, says 17 workers are trapped inside the mine. The government till now has confirmed details of 15 people.
"The coal was soft. We could understand that there was water seepage that has made it soft. The sardar knew which part of the mine had more water. He stopped us from using two seats of the mine because there were chances of the floor caving in and water gushing inside," Mr Ali told NDTV at his native village of Panbari in Assam's Chirang district, about 400 km from the ill-fated mine in East Jaintia Hills where rescue operations are still on to look for his trapped colleagues.
"All miners knew the mine was unsafe and that water might come in any moment. Yet we worked to fight poverty," he said.
There is no sign yet of the 15 men trapped in an illegal coal mine flooded by waters from a nearby river. Three among them are from Mr Ali's village.
"I want to see my husband one last time. If he is dead, I need his dead body and see. I have three kids and we are poor," said Avijan Khatun, the wife of one of the men.
Every home in his village has at least one person working in neighbouring Meghalaya's "rat hole" mines. Scores of unemployed young people from Panbari go to Meghalaya's mines knowing very well that they are death traps. They say they need the money, Rs 2,000 rupees a day.
"People are very poor here. The earning is low. We can't run families so we go for such a risky job" said Abdul Hussian, a Panbari resident.
The National Green Tribunal banned coal mining in 2014 after environmental activists complained it was responsible for severe water pollution.
But the practice continues with locals illegally extracting coal using dangerous so-called rat hole mines.
After the Meghalaya government sent an urgent call for help last week, the centre is sending professional divers and equipment to Meghalaya for rescue operations. Jaswant Singh Gill, an ace diver from Amritsar, has volunteered help and is reaching Shillong.
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