Life in a tunnel: How the 41 banded, and survived, together
41 men were trapped in a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas for 17 days. They survived by using minimal resources and communicating with rescuers through pipes.
They had entered, a band of brothers, at 8pm on November 11, eager to work through the night, so that when they emerged the next morning, Diwali could be celebrated in earnest. But at 5.30 the next morning, as the machines whirred, and the 41 men in the hard hats welded and forged a crucial pathway in the Himalayas, the tunnel around them rumbled. The mountains are predictable in their unpredictability, and for a while the men continued undeterred. But for the next half an hour -- as they gradually grew perturbed -- the debris continued to fall, completely blocking their exit. They scrambled at first, but their experience told them to stand back and find cover. Bisweswar Nayak first remembers looking at his mobile phone at 8am. “By that time, we knew we were trapped. I was scared, and all I could think of were my family, and my children,” Nayak said.
For the next 17 days, Nayak and the 40 other men made a 2km stretch of the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarkashi their home; finding inventive ways to survive using the bare minimum the collapsed structure had to offer. Their only solace each other, they were afraid; lost hope; found it again; lost it again; but stayed together as rescuers on the outside went through one technique after another to find a way out. On 7.45pm on November 29, they finally emerged -- to a shower of marigolds, cheers, and waiting family -- healthy and on their feet.
Nayak, 40, from Odisha, had worked in tunnel construction in the mountains for four-and-a-half years, and when the sounds of a landslide first began at 5.30am on November 12, he had first believed they would find their way out. “There have been at least four earthquakes during my years in Uttarakhand and never had something like this happened. We kept delaying, thinking it would stop, but the rocks kept falling. By 8am, the debris was close to 70 metres thick,” Nayak said.
They did a quick headcount. There were 41 inside. The rocks had stopped falling. It was quiet. A deathly, scary quiet. “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.
The first task ahead of them was in the absence of conventional methods of communication, was to find a way to convey that they were alive. The tunnel has two previously laid pipes to the outside -- 3 and 4 inches in diameter --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, in a kind of morse code of their own, 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,” Nayak said. The rescuers outside asked them if they were okay. They were okay, they said. “Importantly, we could hear them, and they could hear us.”
The first few days It was the 4-inch pipe that became their first lifeline. Within the first two days, oxygen and dry food began arriving in packets through the makeshift chute. There was puffed rice, cashew nuts, and raisins. But at least for a day, very few ate. “To tell you the truth, nobody ate anything on November 12 and 13. We were all sick with worry. Only after that, once we were very hungry, did we start eating. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was all puffed rice. And when food wasn’t coming through, oxygen was,” Nayak said.
Oxygen was important, because while for the first day-and-a-half there was no breathing trouble, with the 2km radius of the tunnel providing air, it was starting to turn stale. “Some of us started facing breathing trouble. Eighteen hours later, they started pumping in oxygen through that small pipeline. After that, it was fine,” Nayak said.
There were some medical complaints, such as nausea and indigestion but nothing too serious. “One can’t eat the same food everyday. Some 2 or 3kg of dry fruits that we didn’t eat has been left inside. It must still be there,” said 34-year-old Saba Ahmed, from Ara in Bihar.
For the first few days, there were no mobile phone chargers, and no access to entertainment. The men turned to playing children’s games -- Raja, Rani, Chor, Sipahi on chits of paper the most popular. “We only turned our phones on to know the time,” Sunil Kumar Vishwakarma said.
Then, on Day 9, there was a breakthrough. From the middle of the debris began to emerge a six-inch pipeline, not enough to carry a human being, but sufficient to pass through cooked food, water, mobile phone chargers, and an endoscopic camera. A camera that told the world that the workers were alive and on their feet, and told the workers there was renewed hope.
Survival Inside Among the 41 men, there were two foremen, 51-year-old Gabbar Singh Negi, and 34-year-old Saba Ahmed, who took charge of charting a daily routine. “In the morning, we would wake up and take a morning walk in the 2km stretch. We encouraged everyone to do yoga as well. We would then have breakfast. Initially it was only puffed rice and dry fruits, but after the six inch pipe was laid, we got khichdi, bread, eggs, jam, and fruit. Eventually we were sent phone chargers after we communicated that’s what we needed. After that, people played on their phone. I for instance, watched South Indian movies on mine,” Saba Ahmed said.
It helped that the tunnel, completely sealed from the elements, was neither hot nor cold. But water, even though it was there, was a problem. “Inside the tunnel, water drops down from the rocks because it is on a slope. For the first nine days, until the six inch pipe was created, that is the water we drank,” Ahmed said.
The most common complaint, in the first early days therefore, was constipation because of the lack of water. “I last took a bath on November 11. The water dropping from the rocks has chemicals in them because we use those in the shotcrete method during tunnel construction. Some of us bathed, but we were afraid it would lead to skin problems,” Ahmed said.
The other, immediate problem, was to create a makeshift bathroom. For this, the labourers chose a spot on the other end of the tunnel, on the Barkot side, and designed a solution. “In the 2km stretch inside, construction was almost complete, and we had a poclain machine. So we dug between 50 and 60 pits using the machine, used those to defecate, and then cover the pits with soil,” Ahmed said.
To sleep, Ahmed said, the men used geotextile sheets -- made of polyester, these can separate, filter, or reinforce soil -- as bedsheets and blankets. But sleep was often disturbed. “When death is in front of you, one can’t sleep or eat well. I would often sleep at 4am or 5am, and then by 8, people from the other end of the pipe would start talking to us. But between 10pm and 11pm, before we lay down, everyone would get together to pray,” Ahmed said.
When they were awake, after the 6-inch pipe was laid, they watched movies on their phones to keep the boredom away. But two weeks in, a BSNL landline was sent in. “I spoke to my family in Odisha. I heard their voice, and there was some succour,” Nayak said.
The great escape For seven days, on the microphone attached to the endoscopic camera, or the BSNL landline, there was no shortage of encouragement. The 41 men spoke to their families and colleagues, doctors and psychiatrists, chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, and principal secretary with the Prime Minister’s Office, PK Mishra.
Every day, they were told how far the rescuers had been come, and that they said they would soon emerge was on the anvil. That day was November 28. By noon, the voice on the other end of the microphone said they had pushed through 55 metres of debris, but worryingly, they saw no pipe on the other side. “We panicked and thought the pipe may have gone upwards. We asked them to push 5 metres further,” Ahmed said.
At 1.30 pm, as they watched with baited breath, debris began to fall. Then, five-and-a-half hours later, they saw the evacuation pipe. A chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” reverberated around the collapsed tunnel. By 9pm, some on makeshift trolleys, and some on their hands, they all emerged, a band of brothers, who were buried by a mountain, and lived to tell the tale.
(With inputs from Avinash Kumar in Patna)
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