‘Joy, gratitude’: Rescued 41 set for a new chapter | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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‘Joy, gratitude’: Rescued 41 set for a new chapter

Nov 30, 2023 12:40 AM IST

For the rat-hole miners, too, it was a moment of catharsis – seeing their life of ignominy, menial labour find what it always had lacked, a modicum of respect.

Relieved, joyous, and overwhelmingly hopeful. Forty-one workers who were buried under a mountain in Uttarakhand and pulled out after 17 harrowing hours in a daring rescue expressed their gratitude to the country on Wednesday, saluted the grit of the humble “rat-hole miners” who ground through a sheer wall of rock, mud and debris, and voiced the glee that coursed through them at the first sight of their loved ones.

Rescued workers board an Indian Air Force (IAF) Chinook helicopter to be airlifted to Rishikesh, at Chinyalisaur airstrip(AP)
Rescued workers board an Indian Air Force (IAF) Chinook helicopter to be airlifted to Rishikesh, at Chinyalisaur airstrip(AP)

The men – whose 17-day-long torment galvanised a nation in prayer and concern – spent the night at a special health facility set up at Chinyalisaur before being airlifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh for more rigorous checks.

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But apart from recounting the anxious 422 hours they spent trapped in the dark depths of the Himalayas, the men appeared in remarkably high spirits, talking about the bonds they forged in adversity and expressing hope about the future – their cheer buoying the collective mood of the country.

Also read: Uttarakhand tunnel rescue: After 422 anxious hours, families rejoice

“When we were being taken out on a stretcher through the rescue pipes, it felt like we were passing a tunnel inside a tunnel. After three minutes in the pipe, I felt like I had got a new life,” said rescued worker Sabah Ahmad.

The ordeal began on November 12 when the workers were attempting to complete the final 400m stretch of the 4.5km-long tunnel on the Yamunotri National Highway in Uttarkashi when the hills rumbled at 5.30am and collapsed debris trapped them inside. Frantic rescue operations began almost immediately as rescuers managed to establish contact with the workers via walkie-talkie sets and pumped in oxygen and food through pipes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying its tributes to the courage of the 41 men and the rescuers.

“I congratulate you on coming out safely after being in danger for so many days. It is a matter of happiness for me and I cannot express it in words. If something bad had happened, can’t say how we would have taken that. It is God’s grace that all of you are safe,” Modi told them, according to a video of the conversation released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Seventeen days is not a short time. You all showed a lot of courage and encouraged each other,” Modi added. He said he kept tabs about the operation and was in constant touch with the CM. “My PMO officials also were sitting there. But worry is not lessened by just getting information,“ the PM said.

Ahmad told the PM that despite the inclement conditions and the fear that stalked the tunnel, they didn’t flinch. “We were like brothers, we were together. We used to take a stroll in the tunnel after dinner,” he added.

Some workers described the terrifying solitude that reverberated in the tunnel. “We had our mobile phones but there was no network inside the tunnel. Our walkie-talkie handsets had stopped working. The first four hours were terrifying,” said Sunil Kumar Vishwakarma from Rohtas.

Ingenuity saved them. To tell the outside world that they were alive, the workers focussed on two previously laid pipes to the outside- 3 and 4 inches in diameter- that were used to carry water from the outside to cool the machines and drain out water seeping out from the rock into the construction site. So like morse code, they blocked the water in the pipe every five minutes, to let engineers outside know that they were in trouble.

“There was electricity and light, but there was the fear that oxygen would deplete quickly. After a few hours, the engineers noticed what we were doing, and they used the pipes to start talking to us,” Bisweswar Nayak said.

The first breakthrough came at 3.45am on November 21, when the first grainy visual emerged of a man in a blue hard hat, peering into the six-inch pipeline. From one end, there was the booming voice of rescuers, looking on anxiously. “Are you okay?” the rescuer asked. The man in the blue hat responded with words of encouragement, and said, “I am okay.”

The final breakthrough was made possible by a small group of rat miners – sent in on November 27– who squeezed into a metal pipe and cut though the rock face by hand. Three men worked in tandem – one drilled, another scooped up the rubble by hand, and the third pushed the muck through a trolley to the other side of the pipe -- in eight-hour-long shifts through the night. The primitive strategy – often employed by illegal miners to extract coal through narrow, horizontal passages in India’s North-East – helped the operation overcome last-mile jitters after the augur machine – a corkscrew-like device with a rotary blade – got stuck in the rubble on November 24.

For the motley group of rat-hole miners, too, it was a moment of catharsis – seeing their life of ignominy and menial labour find what it always had lacked, a modicum of respect.

“It was a very emotional feeling…It was like a person getting some water on a deserted land,” said rescue team leader Vakeel Hasan. “It was like everyone accomplished their purpose.”

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