*** ----> Indian rescuers just five metres from 41 trapped in tunnel | THE DAILY TRIBUNE | KINGDOM OF BAHRAIN

Indian rescuers just five metres from 41 trapped in tunnel

AFP | Silkyara Tunnel , India                                     

The Daily Tribune – www.newsofbahrain.com

Indian rescue teams digging by hand are now within five metres of 41 men who have been trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for over two weeks, officials said Tuesday, saying a breakthrough was expected "soon."

After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners are working by hand in a painstaking dig through rock and rubble towards the men using a so-called "rat-hole" mining technique to clear the final stretch.

Some five metres (16 feet) of rubble remain, chief minister of Uttarakhand state Pushkar Singh Dhami told reporters at the site as rescue efforts entered their 17th day.

"The escape passage has been prepared up to 52 metres inside the tunnel, and the passage will break through at 57 metres," Dhami said Tuesday morning.

"The rescue operation is expected to be completed soon," he added, without giving a specific timeframe, raising hopes the end was in sight for the marathon operation.

However, previous hopes of reaching the men have been dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines.

The government has repeatedly warned that timelines are subject to "technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies".

The 41 construction workers have been trapped since November 12 in a tunnel being constructed between the remote towns of Silkyara and Dandalgaon in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

- 'Last hope' -

Rajput Rai, a drilling expert, told the Press Trust of India that three-person teams were taking turns working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.

While one worker drills, a second scoops up the rubble by hand, and the third places it on a wheeled trolley to be pulled out, Rai said, according to PTI's Tuesday report.

Rescuers have brought in a superheated plasma cutter to slice through metal rods that have repeatedly impeded progress.

Tunnel expert Chris Cooper, who is advising the rescue teams said Monday that progress depended on "how the ground behaves", warning they may yet have to cut through heavy-duty girders that had been meant to hold the collapsed roof up.

Last week, engineers working to drive a metal pipe horizontally through the 57 metres of rock and concrete ran into metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the rubble, snapping a giant earth-boring machine.

In a separate effort, a drilling machine was brought up to a forested hill above the tunnel on a specially constructed track.

Vertical drilling from that location is now nearly halfway through the 89 metres needed to reach the stranded men, a risky route in an area that has already suffered a collapse.

Digging, blasting and drilling have also begun from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be around 480 metres.

The workers were seen alive for the first time on Tuesday, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity are being delivered.

"Our only source of strength is God, as it is the last hope for us," said mother-of-three Musarrat Jahan, whose husband Mohd Sabah Ahmad is a migrant worker trapped inside.

"We have more faith in God than anything", she told AFP by phone from her home in the eastern state of Bihar, one of India's poorest.

Though trapped, the workers have plenty of space in the tunnel, with the area inside 8.5 metres high and stretching about two kilometres  in length.