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India tunnel collapse rescue sees success as “rat miners” reach 41 men trapped for 17 days

New Delhi — Rescuers finally reached 41 men trapped in a Himalayan highway tunnel in northern India Tuesday after 17 days. The breakthrough, after a series of failed attempts, was achieved by a team of “rat miners” digging manually through the huge mound of debris that filled a section of the tunnel during a partial collapse on Nov. 12.

The rat-hole miners, experts in a traditional method of coal mining still used widely in India, were called in only on Monday after more than two weeks of failed attempts to reach the stranded workers using heavy machinery.

“Rat miners” arrive to start manually drilling into debris inside the partially collapsed Silkyara tunnel in India’s Uttarakhand state, Nov. 27, 2023.ARUN SANKAR/AFP/GETTY

The team of 24 rat miners started work Monday to drill through the debris pile manually and create a narrow passageway to the trapped men.

Uttarakhand’s top elected official, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, in a post on social media, lauded the “tireless work of all the rescue teams engaged in the rescue operation,” saying the “work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed. Soon all the labor brothers will be taken out.”

Ambulances and a medical team were waiting outside the tunnel entrance Tuesday afternoon for the workers to come out. The men were expected to be taken immediately for medical checks after their exit from the tunnel.

Rescuers had tried since the collapse, believed to have been triggered by a landslide in the unstable Himalayan region, to drill through the debris in the collapsed tunnel using a large auger machine, but it became stuck in the rubble on Friday and had to be broken down and removed — an operation that took several days itself.

Members of rescue teams prepare to conduct a rescue operation after a portion of an under-construction tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi
Rescue workers prepare to conduct an operation after a portion of an under-construction tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, Nov. 14, 2023.UTTARAKHAND STATE DISASTER RESPONSE FORCE/HANDOUT/REUTERS

The 41 men have been trapped in the under-construction highway tunnel they were building in the Silkyara district of northern India’s Uttarakhand state since the collapse, but a small pipe was drilled into the tunnel on the first day of the collapse, enabling rescuers to provide the workers with sufficient oxygen, food and medicine. 

Last week, they then managed to force a slightly wider pipe in through the rubble, which meant hot meals and a medical endoscopic camera could be sent through, offering the world a first look at the trapped men inside.

A screen shows images being sent from a medical endoscopy camera that was fed through a  pipe into a tunnel where a partial collapse left 41 workers trapped in India’s northern Uttarakhand state, Nov. 21. 2023.ANI/DISTRICT INFORMATION OFFICER/REUTERS

What is rat-hole mining?

Rat-hole mining is a primitive, officially banned method of manual coal extraction that involves digging very narrow, vertical shafts into the earth through which miners descend to extract coal. 

Miners descend into the pits using ropes or bamboo ladders, without safety gear. Coal is then manually extracted using primitive tools such as pickaxes, shovels and baskets. The tunnels used are generally only big enough for a single miner to descend at a time, for which reason rat miners often include women and children.

Experts say the method is damaging to the environment and has been linked to soil erosion, deforestation, acidification of rivers and disruption of local ecosystems.    

A miner slowly carries a heavy basket load of wet coal hundreds of feet up on wooden slats from deep inside a coal mine shaft near Rimbay village, in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, Jan. 31, 2013.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY

India’s National Green Tribunal, a powerful judicial body tasked with environmental protection, banned rat-hole mining across the country in 2014 due to its environmental impact and unsafe labor conditions, but it remains prevalent in parts of India in the absence of viable alternative livelihoods for local populations.