A heavy drilling machine was airlifted from Delhi by three IAF transport aircraft Wednesday to replace the "failed" equipment which was being used earlier to create a passage for 40 workers trapped in an under-construction tunnel that collapsed three days back, officials said.
The 'American auger' machine that landed in parts at the Chinyalisaur airport, over 30 kilometres from the tunnel on the Char Dham route, was being put into service amid apprehension by workers at the site on the progress of the multi-agency rescue operations.
Workers chanted slogans at the mouth of the tunnel on the Brahmakhal-Yamunotri National Highway, protesting over the "slow" pace of the operation to rescue their colleagues trapped inside for the fourth day.
The plan is to use the 'American auger' machine to drill through the rubble of the tunnel's collapsed portion and insert 800-mm and 900-mm diameter sections of mild steel pipes -- one after the other. Once this happens, the workers trapped on the other side of the rubble can crawl out to safety.
The first drilling machine turned out to be too slow and technical issues developed, the officials said. Also, falling debris inside the tunnel damaged the equipment and injured two rescue workers on Tuesday.
The replacement machine was carried in three C-130J Hercules aircraft to Chinyalisaur on Wednesday afternoon. Uttarkashi Superintendent of Police Arpan Yaduvanshi said they were being transported by road to the tunnel, about two hours away.
One part of the heavy drilling machine has already reached the tunnel while its other parts are still being unloaded from the aircraft at Chinyalisaur, an official said in Uttarkashi.
"After all parts of the machine arrive here, they will be unloaded and assembled which may take a few hours before being deployed for drilling. With a capacity to penetrate four-five metres of rubble per hour, we can expect it to excavate 50 metres through the rubble in 10 hours," NHIDCL Director Anshu Manish Khalkho said here.
The purpose of bringing the new machine is to speed up the process of preparing an escape passage for the trapped, he said.
Khalkho also said a six-diametre pipe has been put through the rubble to supply food items to the trapped workers which was being done earlier through a pipe meant for supplying oxygen.
Uttarkashi District Magistrate Abhishek Ruhela said officials are maintaining constant communication with the trapped workers and asking them not to lose patience.
"It is a challenging situation. We often tend to lose patience in situations like this. Our officials have spoken to the protesters and asked them not to give up patience. It may take some more time but all the trapped workers will be safely evacuated," Ruhela told PTI when asked about the protest.
Tehri MP Mala Rajya Lakshmi Shah also visited the tunnel site and said the central and state governments are providing all technological support to expedite evacuation of the trapped workers.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami is continuously monitoring the rescue operation in Silkyara despite being in Indore, an official statement said.
He is taking updates from Garhwal commissioner and senior officials of the multiple agencies engaged in the relief and rescue operation, it said.
"A big challenge has come before us which we have to face successfully with full courage and patience," Dhami said.
A portion of the tunnel, part of the ambitious Char Dham all-weather road project, collapsed on Sunday. The 30-metre collapsed section is 270 metres from the mouth of the tunnel from the Silkyara side.
The officials said the labourers were safe, and oxygen, electricity, medicines, food items and water were being supplied to them through pipes.
Khalkho, however, said it was not possible to specify a definite timeframe for the evacuation of the trapped labourers but effort was on to make a headway at the earliest and rescue them all safely. Constant communication is being maintained, he added.
Tuesday's landslide and slow performance of the drilling machine deployed earlier hampered efforts to insert steel pipes through the tunnel's debris to create the passage, the NHIDCL director added.
According to a list of the trapped workers issued by the emergency operation centre, 15 are from Jharkhand, eight from Uttar Pradesh, five from Odisha, four from Bihar, three from West Bengal, two each from Uttarakhand and Assam, and one from Himachal Pradesh.