Rat-hole miners emerged as the heroes as they drilled with their hands to safely evacuate all 41 workers trapped in a collapsed Uttarakhand tunnel. The smiles on their faces hid all the exhaustion from digging in the cramped tunnel where even breathing becomes a challenge.
"The workers were so happy seeing us. They hugged us and offered us almonds," Devendra, one of the miners, told NDTV. "We cut 15 metres. We were very happy when we reached there and got a glimpse of them," said another.
The rescuers resorted to rat-hole mining, a banned practice, after a high-tech, imported drilling machine broke down in the final stretch of the operation. The miners then began manually drilling their way to the trapped workers.
"They worked very hard. We were convinced that we must rescue the trapped workers. This was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. They worked 24 hours non-stop to bring them out," said their team leader.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister also mentioned the role of the rat-hole miners in his 'thank-you' message at a press conference after all the workers were evacuated.
"Machines kept getting busted, but I want to thank the manual miners. I even met the workers who were trapped. They said they faced no problem inside the tunnel," he said.
The 41 workers were evacuated this evening - 17 days after they were trapped in the collapsed tunnel in Silkyara in Uttarkashi district on November 12.
After the heavy auger drilling machine broke down two days ago, the rat-hole miners retrieved the broken parts and began drilling the remaining stretch with their hands. Their escape tunnel reached the workers this evening and they were rolled out on stretchers.
Meanwhile, vertical drilling was also underway as a secondary option in case the horizontal drilling faced another obstacle.