Responding to a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking greater urgency in the ongoing operation to rescue 15 miners trapped in an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya, the state government on January 3 produced an official letter as proof of its earnestness. Dated January 1, it was written by the district commissioner of East Jaintia Hills, where the mine is located, to the additional chief secretary. The letter’s subject line states that it is a request for “release of funds” for the rescue operation. The reason why it was submitted to the court is that it gives a summary of the rescue efforts since December 14, the day after the miners were trapped.

The summary compresses the rescue work from December 14 to December 24 – led by the National Disaster Response Force – into a single bullet point before detailing the arrival of support from Odisha’s fire brigade on December 28 and the Navy and Coal India the following day.

This is disingenuous. For it’s the first 10 days, described in a single sentence in the letter, that are at the heart of the allegations of lackadaisical approach on part of the government. It’s this period that the petition complains about as well.

To get a clearer picture of what really transpired during those 10 days, spoke to several officials from various agencies involved in the operation. Based on these interviews, here’s a blow-by-blow account of what happened.

How it unfolded

After news reached the district administration on the evening of December 13 that over a dozen people were trapped in a flooded mine in Khloo Ryng Ksan forest in Nonkhleih, a team was sent to the spot almost immediately. The team made preliminary rescue efforts, a district official said, but soon realised it was beyond them given the depth of the water in the mineshaft.

In the meantime, an SOS call was made to the 1st battalion of the National Disaster Response Force stationed near the Guwahati airport in neighbouring Assam. The force received the call at around 7 pm and a team, under Assistant Commandant Santosh Singh, left within the hour. The team reached Khliehriat, district headquarters of East Jaintia Hills, just past midnight. They were at the mine “at the first light of day”, Singh said.

Getting to work

The team spent the day “assessing the situation”. By the evening, Singh told the district administration there was too much water – some 70 feet – in the shaft for his divers to go down and asked for “dewatering” of the mine. He received two 25-horsepower pumps.

Singh also called his Guwahati base for sonar equipment, which uses sound waves to detect objects underwater. The equipment arrived the following day, but proved useless. There was some good news though: the water level in the mineshaft had dropped by 15 inches.

On December 16, the director general of Mines Safety arrived at the spot. He told the district commissioner to write to Coal India requesting technical help and high-power pumps to dewater the mine, recalled a person who witnessed the meeting. The director general also had water samples from the mine, a few adjacent shafts and the nearby river, which flooded the mine, sent to a laboratory in West Jaintia Hills’ Jowai.

All this while rains lashed Nonkhleih following a deep depression over the Bay of Bengal. Not unexpectedly, the next morning brought bad news: the water level in the mine had gone up by 26 inches.

The lab sent the test results on December 18. The pH values – a measure of a substance’s acidic content – of all the samples matched. This meant water from the river was still seeping into the mines.

Two days later, Jaswant Singh Gill, who led a heroic rescue mission at a coal mine in West Bengal’s Raniganj in 1989, arrived from Amritsar. He echoed what the director general had said: get better pumps.

Citing Gill’s advice, Federick M Dopth, deputy commissioner of East Jaintia Hills, promptly wrote to the Meghalaya additional chief secretary, requesting better equipment, including ten 100-horsepower pumps.

But as the Christmas holidays set in, the next few days saw little work. On December 24, the NDRF turned off the two pumps at their disposal. “As everyone in the government celebrated Christmas, we stared at the shafts and at each other waiting for better pumps to arrive,” said an NDRF official, who asked not to be identified.

The same day, Dopth told that his request for pumps was under “examination” by the government.

A senior official in the revenue and disaster management department conceded that “Christmas holidays happened and slowed the work significantly”. Indeed, the official in charge of the mission, Additional chief Secretary PW Ingty, went on leave. Ingty declined to be interviewed for the story.

A senior official in the state secretariat, however, claimed that it took time to process Dopth’s request because the administration was not sure if the roads in the area could “take the load of the heavy pumps”. “But then we were told by experts they could be transferred with only minor road repairs,” the official said. “Besides, water was seeping in from the river in any case.”

Hope is dimming

Coal India eventually received the request for technical help on the evening of December 26. “We had a team at the spot for a preliminary inspection by the next day,” said JK Borah, general manager, North Eastern Coalfields. A “specialised team” from the public sector company followed two days later.

By December 29, teams from the Navy and the Odisha Fire Service were also stationed at the mine. That day also saw the arrival of the first set of high-power pumps from Bhubaneswar. The same type of pumps, made by Kirloskar Brothers, were used during the Thailand cave rescue. More such pumps reached the spot over the next two days, including from Coal India.

Now there’s no lack of equipment but hope is increasingly in short supply. A recent discovery by Coal India has only deepened the mood of despondency: the water level in the river is around 10 metres higher than in all the shafts in the area. “This means there is no direct connection between the river and the mines,” Bora explained. “But there is a seepage happening from somewhere.”

The point of the seepage is yet to be found. By local accounts, there are around 90 mines in the area, all likely interconnected. The rescue team is working four shafts. “We are pumping out water from adjacent shafts in the hope that if they are interconnected, the main mineshaft will dewater in the process,” said an official with the Odisha Fire Service.

As the day ended on January 4, an NDRF officer asked a district official, “What do the people say? Any chances?”

“No, sir, no chance,” he replied, matter of factly.

The NDRF officer turned to an executive from Xylem Inc, an American multinational “water technology” company who had arrived early that day after “seeing media reports” about the accident. “Do you still want to try?” the rescue officer asked.

“Yes, sir, that’s why we are here,” the executive replied. “To try and get something out at least.”