By Saurabh Sharma
SILKYARA, India (Reuters) -Rescue workers renewed efforts on Thursday to reach 40 men trapped for a fifth day inside a collapsed highway tunnel in India, though progress was slow as they began drilling through rock and soil debris.
Authorities said they were confident an advanced drilling machine flown in from New Delhi will speed up the rescue at the site in the northern state of Uttarakhand.
The plan is to drill and create space for a pipe that can be used by the trapped men to crawl to safety.
The 4.5 km (3 mile) tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The $1.5 billion project aims to connect four Hindu pilgrimage sites through 890 km (550 miles) of roads.
Authorities have not said what caused the tunnel to cave in but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
Drilling had penetrated about 12 metres (40 ft) of debris on Thursday evening, officials said, adding that they had to cover a total distance of about 60 metres.
The machine can drill through about 2-2.5 metres of rock per hour and had faced “obstructions in the form of boulders or rods and small cement blocks”, they said.
“There is a major challenge of keeping the alignment straight, which is the reason that it is taking a lot of time,” Devendra Singh Patwal, a disaster management officer, told Reuters.
The process will have to begin afresh if the alignment changes, he added.
“There is electricity, water and we are sending food. The new machine which is more powerful and speedy, is deployed,” V.K. Singh, federal deputy minister for road transport and highways, and a retired army chief, told reporters at the site.
“Our priority is to save them all. The morale of people trapped inside is high. We are very optimistic of bringing them out,” he said, adding that the outer limit is to “complete this in two or three days but it could be done faster too”.
Singh said Indian agencies involved in the rescue effort were consulting experts in Austria, Norway and Thailand, but did not elaborate.
Since the tunnel collapsed, the trapped men have been supplied with food, water and oxygen via a pipe and they are in contact with rescuers via walkie-talkies.
A six-bed medical facility has been put in place near the tunnel and hospitals nearby are on standby.
“The food items are providing them enough calories and it can help them for up to nine days,” R.C.S. Pawar, chief medical officer of the district, said when asked how long the 40 men could survive on dry fruits that were being provided.
They were also given medicines for fever, headache and nausea as some of them had complained about these issues and “it could be due to various factors”, he added.
The highway project has faced some criticism from environmental experts and some work was halted in January after hundreds of houses along the routes were damaged by subsidence.
The federal government has said it employed environmentally friendly techniques in the design to make geologically unstable stretches safer.
(Additional reporting by Tanvi Mehta in NEW DELHI; Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Sharon Singleton)