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Drilling snags delay rescue of 41 men trapped in Indian tunnel

Drilling snags delay rescue of 41 men trapped in Indian tunnel

By Saurabh Sharma

SILKYARA, India (Reuters) - Hopes for the imminent rescue of 41 men trapped in a highway tunnel in the Indian Himalayas for nearly two weeks were dashed by recurring problems with the drilling equipment, officials said on Friday.

The men, construction workers from some of India's poorest states, have been stuck in the 4.5-km (3-mile) tunnel being built in Uttarakhand state since it caved in early on Nov. 12. Authorities have said they are safe, with access to light, oxygen, food, water and medicines.

Attempts to pull them out by drilling through the debris of rock, stones and metal and pushing through an evacuation pipe have been slowed by snags.

Rescuers had hoped to finish the drilling late on Thursday but had to suspend it after the platform on which the auger machine is placed was damaged, and subsequently a metal pipe was found stuck to the machine, requiring it to be reassembled, a government statement said.

An estimated 10-12 metres (33-39 feet) of the debris pile is left to be drilled through. Work resumed on Friday evening only to be suspended soon after as the machine ran into a new obstacle, officials said, without elaborating.

Authorities have not said what caused the tunnel collapse, but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.

The tunnel did not have an emergency exit and was built through a geological fault, a member of a panel of experts investigating the disaster told Reuters on the condition of anonymity on Friday.

The rescue plan involves pushing a pipe wide enough to pull the trapped men out on wheeled stretchers. Rescue workers rehearsed the evacuation by going into the pipe and being pulled out on stretchers, a video clip provided by authorities showed.

A second plan to drill vertically from atop the hill is also being pursued and the drilling machines are being assembled, the statement said.

The men have been getting cooked food since a larger lifeline pipe was pushed through earlier this week and the statement said they were sent 200 rotis or Indian round flat bread, lentils and vegetable curry.

More than a dozen doctors, including psychiatrists, have been at the site, talking to the men and monitoring their health.

They have been told to do light yoga exercises, walk around in the 2-km space they have been confined to, and keep talking to each other. Rohit Gondwal, a psychiatrist, told Reuters they were also considering sending playing cards and board games such as ludo and chess.

The collapsed tunnel is on the Char Dham pilgrimage route, one of the most ambitious projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

It aims to link four key Hindu pilgrimage sites with 890 km (550 miles) of two-lane road, at a cost of $1.5 billion.

(Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Stephen Coates and Toby Chopra)