The operation to rescue 41 workers trapped in Uttarakhand's Silkyari tunnel is expected to begin "in the next 15-20 minutes" and could be completed within two hours, one of the officials involved in the frantic 17-day op told news agency ANI late Tuesday night. He said personnel from the state and national disaster response forces had entered the collapsed parts of the tunnel to begin the rescue process.
"The rescue work has been completed and trapped workers will start coming out in 15-20 minutes. NDRF teams will pull out workers now. It will take around half-an-hour to rescue all 41 workers..."
Rescue teams have reportedly cleared the final few metres of debris - thanks to the banned manual "rat-hole"-mining technique employed after the high-tech machines, or augers, failed to drill the necessary 60 metres - and lay two-feet wide pipes to create an escape route.
Earlier, Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd.), a member of the National Disaster Management Authority, said the rescue operation may take "the entire night" but that a "breakthrough" is near.
"We are near a breakthrough... but not yet there. Manual work has carried on the entire night and we have reached 58 metres (thanks to) our 'rat miners' and Army engineers. The trapped workers inside have said they can hear noises of work being done..." Lt General Hasnain explained.
READ | Chinook Helicopter On Standby For Trapped Uttarakhand Tunnel Workers
The Air Force has stationed a Chinook helicopter (a twin-rotor heavy-lift chopper) near the medical centre at Chinyalisaur, to which the trapped men will be taken once they are brought out of the tunnel.
LIVE UPDATES | Uttarkashi Tunnel Rescue Operation
The rescue plan hinges on a single NDRF personnel crawling down the pipe to assess the condition of the trapped men and begin the process of bringing them out. The workers will be brought out one-by-one on a specially-modified stretcher that will be pushed down the rescue pipe and pulled up manually by the rescuers.
READ | How 41 Workers Got Trapped Inside Uttarakhand Tunnel For 17 Days
A temporary medical centre has been set up at the site, where each man will be examined and given first aid, if needed, before they are prepped for transport in the ambulances.
READ | How Rat-Hole Mining, Outlawed, Saved 41 Trapped In Uttarkashi Tunnel
Visuals from the rescue site - a storm of activity as battalions of tunnelling experts, disaster response teams and medical personnel are at work - showed ambulances - one for each trapped man - being taken, one-by-one, into and out of the tunnel.
These were understood be practice drills for when the workers are finally brought above ground.
READ | 41 Ambulances Lined Up Outside Tunnel To Take Workers To Hospital
When the men are rescued, a green corridor has been established to ensure each ambulance is transported to a makeshift hospital in Chinyalisaur, which is located 30 km from the tunnel site.
The medical facility has 41 oxygen-equipped beds and the necessary equipment and medicines to provide each worker with the required medical care, NDTV has been told.
"Rescued workers will be brought here only if medical treatment cannot be met in district hospital. At AIIMS Rishikesh, there are 20 beds in Trauma Centre and a few in the ICU," a senior physician said.
Earlier today relatives were asked to "be prepared"; "Keep their clothes and bags ready," officials told them, explaining that one family member would be allowed to ride in each ambulance.
READ | "Keep Bags Ready": Workers' Families Told As Tunnel Op In Final Stretch
The final stretch of the rescue process has been completed not by the expensive drillers, or augers, like the 25-ton machine that broke down Monday, but by a manual system called "rat-hole" mining, which was banned in 2014 for being unscientific and causing increased environmental pollution.
Efforts till now have included smaller pipes being pushed through nearly 60 metres of debris to provide food, drinking water and medicines. The food supplied so far - in consultation with doctors and dieticians - has included khichdi and fruits, as well as pulao and mater paneer.
READ | Trapped Uttarakhand Workers Get Veg Pulao, Matar Paneer For Dinner
The smaller pipes have also been used to maintain communication with the workers; this includes the use of landlines that are used twice daily to allow the men to speak to anxious family members.
The rescue process has been monitored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi; his Principal Secretary PK Mishra is at the op site and was accompanied by Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Sukhbir Singh Sandhu.
Located 30 km from Uttarkashi and 139 km drive from state capital Dehradun, the Silkyara tunnel is an integral part of the centre's ambitious (and controversial) Char Dham all-weather road project.
With input from agencies
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