Gabbar Singh Negi (in blue jacket)
The 41 workers freed from the collapsed Uttarakhand tunnel late Tuesday endured 17 days in an underground prison - a circumstance guaranteed to test the resolve of most and which called for a strong leader to help the men stay calm. That figure was Gabbar Singh Negi - who was born 260 km away in Pauri Garhwal district and had the unfortunate distinction of been in three collapsed tunnels.
Over the 400+ hours the men spent buried - nearly 200 feet in the ground - Mr Negi taught his colleagues yoga and meditation, ensured they stayed physically and mentally active, and underlined his commitment to their safety by telling them he would be the last to be rescued.
"'I am senior-most... I will be the last to come out...', this is what he told me," a smiling and visibly relieved Jaymal Singh Negi, his brother, told NDTV Wednesday morning, hours after all 41 men were extracted and given extensive medical check-ups to ensure they had suffered no injuries.
READ | Trapped Workers Safe, Focus Now On What Led To Tunnel Collapse
That all 41 survived the disaster with few injuries, and emerged with big smiles, is due, in no small part, to the effort of Gabbar Negi in keeping a potentially catastrophic situation under control.
"I am very happy... the family is very happy. Not just the family but the whole country... the whole country prayed for them. When they came out and we saw they were safe, we distributed sweets and garlands," Jaymal Negi, who has been at the tunnel collapse site for two weeks, told NDTV.
READ | "Will Go Home, Rest": Rescued Worker Narrates 17-Day Ordeal
"I kept talking to him daily. First through the pipes they put into the ground but then with phones that they gave us. I advised my brother to do yoga. He said, 'yes, we are all doing it'." Mr Negi said.
With a big grin on his face, Jaymal Negi told NDTV of his brother's bravery. "He is very brave. When I asked him if there will be a stampede when the rescue starts, he told me, 'I am senior, I will be last'."
It isn't just Jaymal Negi who has spoken in praise of his brother's leadership.
Several of the rescued workers NDTV spoke to highlighted Mr Negi's role in keeping them safe and happy, which included playing games like ludo and chess. One of the psychiatrists at the site, Dr Rohit Gondwal, told news agency PTI the trapped workers were also playing 'chor police'.
READ | "There's Food For 25 Days Still Inside Tunnel": Rescued Worker Exclusive
Mr Negi's bravery was also commended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke to the rescued workers via telephone last night and told them, "It is a matter of happiness for me... I cannot express it in words. If something bad had happened... (I) can't say how we would have taken that."
One of the rescue workers, Akhilesh Singh, told NDTV he was on his way home when the tunnel collapsed; this was on November 12, as the rest of the country was busy celebrating Diwali.
READ | "Practised Yoga, Took Walks": Rescued Workers Interact With PM
All 41 men were safely pulled out Tuesday night after "rat hole" miners - practitioners of a mining process banned by the government in 2014 because it is unsafe - did what high-tech drilling machines could not - break through the final 10-12 metres of rock and debris to free the workers.
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