All 41 workers trapped inside the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand have been rescued, announced Union Minister Nitin Gadkari.

The trapped workers inside the collapsed Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand were rescued soon as pipes were laid down to take them out. Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami had said that rat-hole miners had dug a tunnel and inserted a pipe up to 53 metres inside the debris.

The under-construction tunnel on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri national highway in the Uttarkashi district is part of the Char Dham Road Project to build all-weather roads in Uttarakhand. A section of it collapsed on November 12, trapping the workers.

The group of rat-hole mining experts began manual drilling on Monday evening to rescue the workers. Rat-hole mining is a primitive coal extraction method involving digging small tunnels through soil and other debris. The miners went through an 800-millimetre pipe, drilled manually and removed the debris using shovels, reported NDTV.

“Since yesterday, manual digging has been going on,” National Disaster Management Authority member Lieutenant General (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain had told PTI earlier in the day. “We have proceeded about 10 metres since yesterday, which is I would say, is a phenomenal achievement in less than 24 hours. The sounds of this digging are being heard by the people [workers] on the other side. Hopefully there should be a breakthrough anytime.”

However, he said that it should not be assumed that the moment the tunnel is through to the other end, the evacuation will begin.

“The tunnel must also protrude to the other side by at least two to three meters to give it enough stability,” he said.

The operation to rescue the workers had entered its 17th day on Tuesday. At first, an auger machine was being used to drill through the rubble. The machine had drilled through nearly 46 metres of debris and about 10 metres to 15 metres were remaining. However, on November 24, the blades of the auger machine broke, halting the rescue work.

On Monday, a team familiar with the rat-hole mining method, accompanied by Army engineers and technical personnel, began manually drilling through the debris. They were able to push through pipes around 0.9 metres further through this method.

Parsadi Lodhi, a miner who arrived in Silkyara from Jhansi, said the team has worked with pipes as small as 600 millimetres. “There is around 12 metres of debris and if it is just soil, it will take around 24 hours, but if there are rocks [in the debris] it could take 32 hours or more,” he said.

Ahead of the evacuation, Mahmood Ahmed, Additional Secretary, Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, said that rescuers are simultaneously drilling vertically at a fast pace and have been able to prepare a 36-metre vertical tunnel so far, according to The Indian Express.

Authorities were vertically drilling through 86 metres to create an escape passage for the workers. This is being considered as an alternative rescue method.

The trapped workers would now be taken to hospital for medical care on Tuesday, reported PTI. A separate ward with 41 oxygen-supported beds have been readied at the community health centre in Chinyalisaur, which is 30 kilometers from Silkyara, for the workers.

Family members of the trapped workers were also waiting outside the tunnel to welcome them. “I am happy but I will be more happy when I see him come out of the tunnel,” one of the relatives of a trapped worker told PTI.

Another relative of a trapped worker said that he has been at the site for the past two weeks, reported the news agency. “I feel that we are reaching the end of the rescue operation but I am still a little anxious,” he said. “I will only be relieved once they come out of the tunnel.”