‘Like brothers’: rescued Indian workers stayed hopeful
Saurabh Sharma |
Hope that they would be rescued soon kept many of the workers trapped in a collapsed tunnel in India strong through their ordeal, some of the men say, hours after they were pulled out of 17 days of confinement.
All 41 men, low-wage workers from some of India’s poorest states, were rescued late on Tuesday, and were being taken to a specialist hospital in Rishikesh city after spending the night at a makeshift medical facility in this small Himalayan town.
Doctors said they were all doing well, but would need long-term support, including monitoring for post-traumatic stress.
The men had lights in their confinement area and service pipes were used to push in oxygen, water, food, medicines and also to talk to them, and allow them to speak to their families.
They went for daily walks and did yoga in the 2km stretch of the highway tunnel in which they were trapped.
But many said knowing they were not forgotten, and would be soon pulled out, was what really kept them hopeful and strong.
“For the first day or so, everyone inside was very hopeless and sad,” worker Birendra Kishku, 39, told Reuters.
“We didn’t know if anyone outside knew we were trapped.”
“But when they reached us through the pipe, we got to know what the government was doing to bring us out,” he said.
“Me, my family and our entire village is very happy now.”
Worker Subodh Kumar Verma also said that knowing that a major rescue operation was under way gave him solace and hope.
“I am fine now. It is because of your prayers, and the hard work of the government that I was able to come out,” he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the men by phone late on Tuesday and a video clip of the conversation showed the men sharing their experience with him.
“We lived like brothers,” Saba Ahmed, a worker of the private firm contracted to build the tunnel, told Modi.
“I would tell the workers that we are eating, drinking but have no work so let us do some yoga, go for morning walks to stay fit,” he said.
The removal of the men – low-wage workers from some of India’s poorest states – began more than six hours after rescuers broke through the debris in the tunnel in Uttarakhand state, which caved in on November 12.
They were pulled out on wheeled stretchers through a 90cm wide steel pipe, with the entire process being completed in about an hour.
Some walked out smiling and were hugged by state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, while others made gestures of thanks with clasped hands or sought blessings by touching his feet.
Ambulances that had lined up with lights flashing at the mouth of the tunnel transported the workers for assessment.
Government agencies managing the unprecedented crisis had on Monday turned to “rat miners” to drill through the rocks and gravel by hand from inside the evacuation pipe pushed through the debris after machinery failed.
The tunnel is part of the Char Dham highway, one of Modi’s most ambitious projects aimed at connecting four Hindu pilgrimage sites through an 890km network of roads.
Authorities have not said what caused the cave-in but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
Sukanti Nayak, the mother of worker Raju, said her son was the one telling her not to worry.
“When I first talked to him when he was inside I cried,” she told Reuters.
“My son was consoling me, telling me not to worry and assuring me that they would soon come out.”
“We are eagerly waiting for him to return home.”