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Trapped workers freed after 17 days

Rescuers have pulled out all 41 construction workers trapped for 17 days inside a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas after drilling through rock, concrete and earth to reach them.

An ambulance waits for the first workers freed from inside the tunnel. Photo: AP

An ambulance waits for the first workers freed from inside the tunnel. Photo: AP

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.

“Their condition is first-class and absolutely fine… just like yours or mine. There is no tension about their health,” Wakil Hassan, a rescue team leader, said.

The first to be pulled out, a short man wearing a dark grey winter jacket and a yellow hard-hat, was garlanded with marigold flowers and welcomed in traditional Indian style inside the tunnel by state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and federal deputy highways minister VK Singh.

Some walked out smiling and were hugged by Dhami while others made gestures of thanks with clasped hands or sought blessings by touching his feet.

All were garlanded and also presented with a white fabric stole by Dhami and Singh.

“I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media platform X.

“It is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait these friends of ours will now meet their loved ones. The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough.”

Federal road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari thanked rescue workers and said in a post on X that a “safety audit of the tunnel will also be done now”.

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Ambulances that had lined up with lights flashing at the mouth of the tunnel transported the workers to a hospital about 30km away.

Local residents gathered outside the tunnel set off firecrackers, distributed sweets and shouted slogans hailing Mother India.

The 41 men have been getting food, water, light, oxygen and medicines through a pipe but efforts to dig a tunnel to rescue them with high-powered drilling machines were frustrated by a series of snags.

A team of doctors arrived at the site of a collapsed tunnel to treat rescued construction workers. (EPA PHOTO)
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 miners are experts at a primitive, hazardous and controversial method used mostly to get at coal deposits through narrow passages, and get their name because they resemble burrowing rats.

The miners, brought from central India, worked through Monday night and finally broke through the estimated 60 metres of rocks, earth and metal on Tuesday afternoon.

The tunnel is part of the $US1.5 billion ($A2.3 billion) Char Dham highway, one of Prime Minister Narendra 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.

– AAP

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