Rescue workers on Tuesday drilled through the 60-metre stretch of rubble of the collapsed Silkyara tunnel in which 41 workers are trapped for the last 16 days, officials said.
State government's information department chief Bansi Dhar Tiwari told reporters a little after 1.30 pm that the drilling was over.
Less than an hour later, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said the process of laying the escape pipe into the drilled passage was complete. “Soon all brother workers will be brought out,” he posted on social media.
Earlier, NHIDCL managing director Mahmood Ahmed did not immediately confirm that the drilling work was over. He told reporters that the last section of the pipe was being pushed through.
National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel were expected to enter the steel chute pushed into the drilled passage over the past several days and then bring out the workers one-by-one.
Going by the practised drill, each worker will lie down on a wheeled stretcher that would be pulled by rescue workers outside using ropes. This was expected to take about two or three hours.
Anticipation had been building up at the disaster site on the Char Dham route hours before the news broke outside.
Ambulances were lining up at the mouth of the tunnel to rush the rescued workers as they are brought of the steel chute one by one to a community health centre.
A stretch of mud road was re-laid to make passage of ambulances easier. Stretchers were being taken inside the mouth of the tunnel.
As the information about the “breakthrough” emerged, some workers outside chanted “Jai Shri Ram”.
Earlier, L&T team leader Chris Cooper predicted an early end to the workers' ordeal. “It is likely that they will be out before 5 pm," he told reporters. He said vertical drilling, the simultaneous drilling operation to reach the workers from above the tunnel, had now been called off.
Officials decided to switch to manual boring to break through the last 10 metres of the rubble after the heavy-duty auger drilling machine got stuck in the rubble on Friday.
Twelve rat-hole mining experts were called in to finish the last stretch of drilling using hand-held tools in a confined space.
A special ward with 41 oxygen-supported beds was readied days earlier at the community health centre in Chinyalisaur, about 30 km from Silkyara, for the rescued workers.
Doctors were standing by and arrangements made to fly the workers to more advanced hospitals, if needed.