New Delhi: Using drones and remote-sensing equipment, rescue teams intensified efforts Wednesday to reach the 25-35 men trapped in a sludge-choked tunnel as over 170 people remained missing after the Uttarakhand disaster three days ago.
Two of the men earlier counted among the 174 missing returned home safely after being stranded since the flash flood in Chamoli district. Two more bodies were recovered during the day, raising the confirmed death toll to 34.
The multi-agency rescue operation at the NTPC hydel project site has been going on uninterrupted since Sunday, when the Alaknanda river system was hit by the flood triggered possibly by a glacier break or an avalanche in the upper reaches of the Himalayas.
Eight of the 32 bodies earlier recovered from different places in the disaster-hit areas of Chamoli district had been identified, the State Emergency Control Centre in Dehradun said.
The missing people include those working at NTPC’s 480 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad project and the 13.2 MW Rishiganga Hydel Project and villagers whose homes were washed away as a wall of water came hurtling down mountainsides.
A focal point of the rescue work has been efforts to penetrate through tonnes of silt, sludge and debris to get to the about 30 people, who were at work inside the 1,500-metre tunnel at Tapovan when the waters came rushing in.
Indo-Tibetan Border Police chief S S Deswal said the rescue operation to locate the workers trapped in the tunnel will continue till it reaches its “logical conclusion”.
“We are very hopeful that we will be able to rescue them. The workers are stated to be located at their work station that is about 180 metres from the mouth of the Tapovan tunnel,” he told PTI.
Deputy inspector general (DIG) Nilesh Anand Bharne, Uttarakhand police chief spokesperson, said drilling through the debris has become more difficult with the silt inside the tunnel drying up and getting harder.
“All strategies at the moment are focused on rescuing those trapped inside the tunnel with the help of all the resources at our disposal, including drones and remote-sensing equipment,” Bharne told PTI at Tapovan.
Rescue teams have so far managed to progress 80 metres inside the tunnel and have to make their way through tonnes of debris for at least 100 metres more to reach those trapped inside, the DIG added.
The complicated design of the tunnel is making the task even more difficult, prompting the rescue teams to consult NTPC officials.
More than 600 Army, ITBP, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel are engaged in the search-and-rescue operations.
About 450 of them are from the ITBP.
Several measures, including drilling holes to take oxygen to the men inside the tunnel, are also being contemplated, said project consultant A.K. Shrivastava.
The rescuers flew a camera-equipped drone inside the Tapovan tunnel on Tuesday but could not pinpoint the location of survivors or the way forward due to darkness, a senior NDRF officer said.
‘Lack of urgency’ in rescue efforts alleged
Near the disaster site, family members of those possibly inside waited for any news. On Wednesday, they argued with the project authorities for two hours, alleging lack of urgency in the rescue work.
“It is four days since the tragedy occurred but all the focus is on restoring connectivity. Rescuing the missing people does not seem to be the priority,” alleged a man from Punjab, whose brother Jugal worked at the Rishiganga project.
“Jugal’s phone rings when his number is dialled,” he said.
Officials on the ground and those monitoring the rescue from Delhi told PTI that the continuous accumulation of slush and silt inside the tunnel is the biggest hurdle for rescuers.
“Heavy machines have removed more slush from the tunnel the whole night. A joint team of ITBP, NDRF, SDRF and sister agencies entered the tunnel this morning…more slush and water coming from inside the tunnel is making the way ahead difficult,” ITBP spokesperson Vivek Kumar Pandey said in the national capital.
Three heavy earth-moving vehicles are stated to be inside with the workers and the temperature in the tunnel is hovering around 25-26 degrees Celsius.
“The only important aspect is that these trapped men should get some oxygen to breathe, the ITBP chief said.
Relief is being distributed by helicopters among people in 13 villages cut off due to the washing away of a bridge in the avalanche at Malari.
On Tuesday, Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat undertook an aerial survey of the affected areas, visited the ITBP hospital in Joshimath, about 295 km from Dehradun, and met the 12 workers who were rescued from a small tunnel in Tapovan on Sunday evening.
A glacier broke off in Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on Sunday, causing a massive flood in the Dhauli Ganga river and endangering the lives of people living along its banks. The 13.2 MW hydro project on the Rishiganga river was swept away.
An estimated 50-100 personnel working at the power project in Tapovan-Reni area of Uttarakhand are missing. Several districts, including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun, are likely to be affected and have been put on high alert.
It was not immediately clear what had set off the avalanche at a time when it is not the flood season. In June 2013, record monsoon rains in Uttarakhand caused devastating floods that claimed close to 6,000 lives.
That disaster was dubbed the “Himalayan tsunami” because of the torrents of water unleashed in the mountainous area, which sent mud and rocks crashing down, burying homes, sweeping away buildings, roads and bridges.
Environmental experts called for a halt to big hydroelectric projects in the state.
(With PTI inputs)