February 25, 2024

The chief minister said an investigation will cover the cause of the tunnel collapse.

New Delhi:

The 41 workers who had been trapped in the tunnel in Uttarkashi for over 400 hours only showed jetlag-like symptoms and were so healthy that none of them made use of the wheeled stretchers that were kept ready to pull them out and crawled out through the 57 metres of steel pipe in about half an hour, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has said. The rescue teams’ initial estimate for getting the workers out, he said, was between two-and-a-half and three hours. 

In an exclusive interview with NDTV on Wednesday, Mr Dhami also spoke about the difficulties involved in the operation, the investigation into the collapse and the guidance the rescue teams received from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said it was Diwali now for him and everyone else involved in the rescue because the labourers had been brought out safely.

Asked about the health condition of the workers, the chief minister, who was at the tunnel site on Tuesday evening to welcome them and also met them at a makeshift hospital on Wednesday, said, “I met the workers and many of their relatives as well. They are healthy and have not complained of any health issues. There are some jetlag-like symptoms because they said they weren’t getting much sleep and would fall asleep only at 4 am every day,”

You can make out how healthy they are because we had thought that pulling out the workers after we finally reached them would take 2.5 to 3 hours since getting each person out on a stretcher would take five to seven minutes each, but the rescue was done in 30 minutes,” he said. 

“The workers were so healthy that they crawled out together. I received four people first and thought that the next batch would come out in 15-20 minutes but I saw 10-11 people come out in the next 5-7 minutes. The next 10-11 people came out soon after and the final batch consisted of the team leaders. All of them are healthy and happy. They are being kept under observation at AIIMS Rishikesh and we will follow the advice of doctors on the next steps,” the chief minister added.

‘Like His Own Family’

Mr Dhami said the rescue operation was one of the most difficult ones carried out in India and that all possible technology had been used and help from experts, including international ones, was sought. He said PM Modi’s guidance and directions played a big role in the success of the operation. 

“There was not one day when PM Modi did not check on the rescue operation minutely. He enquired about the status, the health of the workers. They say ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai‘ (things are possible when PM Modi is there). We have seen in India’s history that people have waited for days to get relief material loaded in trucks because authorities didn’t distribute them till a politician flagged off the trucks. And now we are seeing a Prime Minister who worried about the trapped workers like they were his own family, his own children,” he claimed. 

On allegations of a rescue tunnel not being constructed, adequate safety measures not being taken and whether Uttarakhand was prepared for such a disaster because machines had to be brought in from outside, the chief minister said a safety audit of all tunnels has been ordered by the Centre and will be carried out by the state too.

He pointed out that the geography in the region is difficult and the tunnel was planned because it would bring down the distance between two points by 25-30 kms. “That is a big distance in the hills and the tunnel would also help when roads have to be closed because of snowfall. It was being constructed for convenience, but safety is also important, and we will look at that,” Mr Dhami said.

‘Audit Soon’

The chief minister said the investigation will cover the cause of the tunnel collapse and a call will be taken on what happens next based on the outcome of the audit.

Several experts have pointed out that infrastructure projects should be carried out very carefully in Uttarakhand and other areas in the Himalayas because of the fragile ecology and because the rock is not very stable. When Mr Dhami was asked about this, he said, “There will be an audit. Several other tunnels have been built, including on the Rishikesh-Karnprayag railway line and the investigation will reveal what happened in this particular case. All projects are carried out after carrying out geological surveys.”

Mr Dhami said that soon after the labourers got trapped on November 12, it appeared that officials from the company involved in the construction and the district administration would be able to remove the debris and rescue them. When it became clear that wouldn’t be possible, other teams and experts were brought in. Mining and international experts were also roped in as and when the situation arose. 

Detailing the operation from November 12, the chief minister said debris began falling soon after the rescue began and then it was decided that an auger would be brought in. He said work had to be stopped at various points when more debris fell or the auger’s blades got stuck. 

“The auger machine got damaged when we had covered 47-48 metres. Work could only resume when the machine was brought out and we began vertical drilling in the meantime. Horizontal drilling could resume again only two days ago but the drill machine encountered another iron girder. The breakthrough happened on Tuesday evening because the miners went in and carried out manual drilling,” Mr Dhami said.

“We didn’t celebrate Diwali and Igas (a local festival in the state) because people from our family were stuck in the tunnel. Now that they are out, for us it is now Igas and it is now Diwali,” the chief minister said.

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