NEW DELHI: Indian workers were greeted with wild cheers and flower garlands on Tuesday as rescuers safely brought out all 41 from the collapsed Himalayan road tunnel where they were trapped after a marathon 17-day engineering operation.
With beaming smiles, the rescued men were welcomed as heroes after being hauled through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe on stretchers specially fitted with wheels, where they were greeted by state officials before embracing their families.
“I am completely relieved and happy as 41 trapped labourers in the Silkyara Tunnel Collapse have been successfully rescued,” Minister of Road Transport Nitin Gadkari said in a statement.
“This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years”.
“Hail mother India!” crowds outside the tunnel cheered, as news spread that all had made it safely out of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where they had been incarcerated since a partial collapse on November 12.
Relatives outside celebrated after previous hopes of reaching the men were repeatedly dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines, in a rescue operation the government said took place in “challenging Himalayan terrain”.
“We are thankful to God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them,” Naiyer Ahmad told AFP, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad was among the trapped workers, and who had been camping out in bitterly cold temperatures at the site for over two weeks.
“We are extremely happy, no words can explain it,” said Musarrat Jahan, the wife of one rescued worker Sabah Ahmad told AFP by phone from Bihar state, where she had been waiting desperately for news.
“Not only my husband got a new life, we also got a new life. We will never forget it”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the workers in a statement that their “courage and patience is inspiring everyone”.
“Patience, hard work and faith won”, said Uttarakhand state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, praising the “prayers of tens of millions of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams.”
The health of the workers was “fine”, with a team of medics in a field hospital assessing them as soon as they were brought out, Dhami added.
Guriya Devi, wife of rescued worker Sushil Kumar, said she had been praying ever since the tunnel collapsed.
“We passed through horrible times, and sometimes we lost hope — but ultimately the time has come to now celebrate”.
Munnilal Kishku, father of freed worker Birendar Kishku, said they had not celebrated Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, because it had happened at the same time as the tunnel collapsed. “We will celebrate it when he reaches the village,” he said.
After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners dug the final section by hand using a so-called “rat-hole” technique, a three-person team working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.
Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra paid tribute to the men at the rock face who squeezed into the narrow pipe to clear the rocks by hand.
“After all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it’s the humble ‘rathole miners’ who make the vital breakthrough,” Mahindra said on X, formerly Twitter.
“It’s a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort and sacrifice.”
Last week, engineers working to drive a metal pipe horizontally through the earth ran into metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the rubble, snapping a giant earth-boring machine.
A separate vertical shaft was also started from the forested hill above the tunnel, as well as from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer route estimated to be around 480 metres.
Before Tuesday, the workers were seen alive for the first time last week, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity were delivered.