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Indian tunnel rescue halted for days as drilling machine breaks down

The race to save 41 construction workers trapped in a tunnel in northern India has hit yet another setback as the drilling machine rescuers have been using has broken down and cannot be repaired – bringing the entire rescue operation to a halt.

The workers have been trapped beneath a collapsed road tunnel in the Uttarkashi district of India’s Uttarakhand state for 13 days after a portion of it collapsed due to a landslide. Reports suggest it may take four to five days to resume drilling as a new machine is put in place.

Rescuers have been beset by setbacks and delays as they struggle to drill through the 195 feet of heavy rock and debris that is separating them from the trapped workers. Rescue personnel have been in regular contact with the workers, and they have been able to send them oxygen, dry food and water.

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A U.S.-made auger machine was being used to penetrate horizontally through the mountainous terrain, but it broke down on Saturday and cannot be repaired. It is unclear what caused the machine to break.

It came just a day after the machine’s platform became destabilized and halted operations. The 25-tonne platform was reinforced with concrete and drilling resumed, but the machine broke down again. 

Arnold Dix, an international expert assisting the rescue team at the accident site, said it is unclear when exactly the drilling will restart. A new machine is being set up at the site in order to drill vertically. 

“The machine is busted, it is irreparable,” Dix said about the broken machine. “The mountain has once again resisted the auger (machine).”

The machine’s high-intensity vibrations were also causing more debris to fall, prompting officials to suspend rescue efforts briefly.

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On Wednesday, the operation was stalled after workers encountered a thick metal rod that had to be cut using gas cutters, the BBC reported.

The machine stopped working after it had drilled about 6.5 feet of the last 40-foot stretch of rock debris that would open a passage for the workers to come out of the tunnel.

Rescue teams were planning on creating an escape route comprised of a tunnel of pipes welded together. Once in place, rescue teams hoped the workers could escape to freedom. 

Pushkar Singh Dhami, chief minister of Uttarakhand state, said the damaged drilling machine would be taken out by Sunday morning. He said he had spoken to some of the trapped men. 

“They are in good spirits,” Dhami said, according to the BBC.

“Take as many days as you require, don’t worry about us,” Dhami said, quoting one of the workers.

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A new drilling machine used to dig vertically was brought to the accident site on Saturday.

The vertical dig is seen as an alternative plan to reach the trapped men, and rescuers have already created an access road to the top of the hill. 

However, rescue teams will need to dig about 440 feet downward to reach the trapped workers — nearly double the distance of the horizontal shaft.

The construction workers have been trapped since Nov. 12 when a landslide caused a portion of the 2.7-mile Silkyara tunnel they were building to collapse about 500 feet from the entrance. The hilly area is prone to landslides and subsidence. 

The workers had been helping to construct a section of a 424-mile road connecting various Hindu pilgrimage sites in the area. The mountainous topography has several Hindu temples that attract pilgrims and tourists.

More than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, have been at the accident site monitoring their health.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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