Rescue workers using massive earth-moving machines worked through the night to remove debris and rescue some 35 people feared trapped inside a tunnel in Uttarakhand's Tapovan, which was hit by a sudden flood after a glacier broke off in the upper reaches of the hill state.
So far the rescuers have reached up to 120 metres inside the 2.5-km-long tunnel. The going is slow as more slush and water continue to seep into the tunnel, said officials overseeing the operation at the tunnel near a severely damaged hydroelectric plant that was under construction at Tapovan. Outside the tunnel there are medical teams on standby with oxygen cylinders and stretchers, as well as anxious relatives.
"The challenge we are facing is that debris and slush are coming out from the tunnel. Machines will continue to work inside the tunnel. But we need to progress carefully as water with high pressure might come from inside the tunnel," ITBP DIG of sector headquarters Aparna Kumar said.
The rescue teams are looking to find the safest and fastest way to cut deeper inside the tunnel. There could be some clarity by the end of the day, officials said. Rescuers say they were able to see some mining vehicles buried inside the tunnel.
"As time passes, the chances of finding them (survivors) are reducing. But miracles do happen," state disaster relief official Piyoosh Rautela told news agency AFP. "There's only so much that one can do. We can't push in multiple bulldozers together. We are working round the clock - man, machinery we are all working round the clock. But the amount of debris is so much that it's going to take a while to remove all that," he said.
All is dark inside the tunnel. Only light from torches show the way forward inside the U-shaped tunnel that measures 12 by 15 feet. The tunnel has one entry and branches out into two separate tunnels, making it harder to locate the missing people.
The multi-agency group of rescuers also flew a camera-equipped drone inside the tunnel on Tuesday but due to darkness, it could not pinpoint the location of survivors or the way forward, a senior National Disaster Response Force officer said.
Rescuers say they have not been able to make contact with any survivor, but are hopeful. The teams are from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and sister agencies.
Measures like drilling to take oxygen for those feared trapped inside the tunnel are being considered, project consultant AK Shrivastava, who is in Tapovan, told news agency PTI. The complicated design of the tunnel is making the task even more difficult, prompting the rescue teams to consult NTPC officials, where their hydel project at Tapovan was badly hit.
"All possible efforts will be made to save the lives of those trapped inside Tapovan tunnel," Director General of Police Ashok Kumar said. Most of those who are feared trapped are workers from Uttarakhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Thirty-two deaths have been reported, but with more than 170 people missing, the number of dead is likely to increase. The rescuers are racing against time to find the missing people, three days since the disaster struck.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh on Tuesday said he came under sharp attack when he was environment minister for stopping hydel projects on rivers in Uttarakhand as the cumulative impact of the projects were not taken into consideration. "…We weren't considering the cumulative impacts of these projects. I can't help but recall that now," he tweeted.
Scientists say higher temperatures could be causing glaciers that feed the rivers to shrink, threatening water supplies and also increasing the chances of landslides and floods, while critics blame dam building and pollution for damaging fragile ecosystems. Last week's disaster was apparently triggered by a glacial burst.