Rescue workers on Tuesday night pulled out all 41 workers trapped in Uttarakhand's Silkyara tunnel in a multi-agency rescue operation that hovered between hope and despair for 16 days.
Instead of being brought out on wheeled stretchers through a steel tube that lined the 60-metre rescue shaft, the labourers crawled out of it, according to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami.
He and Union minister V K Singh welcomed the workers as National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) men helped them in getting out safely.
An ambulance with the first of the 41 workers left the mouth of the tunnel around 8 pm, about an hour after rat-hole mining experts dug through the last stretch of rubble.
There was hugging and cheers as the ordeal ended. Some local villagers burst crackers. Outside the tunnel, some chanted ’Har Har Mahadev’, ’Bharat Mata ki Jai’, and slogans in praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Dhami.
Ambulances which had lined up at the tunnel ferried the workers to a community health centre where a special 41-bed ward had been set up.
Before this, the workers were given a quick medical checkup inside the tunnel.
CM Dhami said no worker was in a critical condition. But they will be kept under medical observation for some time before being sent home, he said.
He said the youngest of the worker was rescued first.
A portion of the under-construction on Uttarakhand's Char Dham route collapsed on November 12, blocking the exit of the workers who were inside.
Food, medicines and other essentials were sent to them through a six-inch pipe pushed through the debris.
Relief was felt far and wide over the safe evacuation.
Jharkhand's Sunil, who was camping in Silkyara, spoke to PTI on the phone after the rescue of his brother Anil.
"Finally, God heard us. My brother could be rescued. I am with him in an ambulance on the way to hospital," he said in a choked voice.
SEE below: The first worker to be rescued from the Silkyara tunnel
As the rescue appeared imminent earlier in the day, families stationed in Silkyara were allowed inside the tunnel with their belongings so that they could travel with their loved ones to the medical centre.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the relief workers. ”Everyone involved in the mission has created an amazing example of humanity and teamwork," he posted on X. "It is a matter of great satisfaction that these friends of ours will meet their dear ones after a long wait."
Union Home Minister Amit Shah said he saluted the grit of the trapped workers for facing such a challenging situation for so long.
The final challenge in the rescue operation was tackled by a group of men versed in the technique of rat-hole mining, which typically involves extracting small amounts of coal by going down narrow burrows.
They were called in to carry out manual drilling after a huge American-made auger boring machine got stuck in the horizontal passage that had been dug up to about 47 metres, the latest in a serious of snags as its blades encountered hurdles like iron girders.
Officials had lined up five other options if the approach through the stretch of rubble failed. These included digging 86 metres down from above the tunnel. By Tuesday, the vertical shaft had reached 45 metres.
SEE below: Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami meets some of the rescued workers
The rat-hole mining experts worked in groups of two or three at a time in the confined space using hand-held tools at the end of the 800-mm wide steel pipe.
Feroz Qureshi and Monu Kumar were the ones who made the actual breakthrough, making contact with the men trapped inside.
The two later said they spent about 30 minutes with the trapped men, who thanked them and offered almonds -- part of the foodstuff sent to them through a six-inch wide pipe. The men were trapped in a two-kilometre built-up stretch of the tunnel.
And then the NDRF personnel entered for the final act of rescue.
”This was a well-coordinated effort by multiple agencies, marking one of the most significant rescue operations in recent years. Various departments and agencies complemented each other despite facing numerous challenges," Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari later said.
Relatives camping at Silkyara were upbeat since the morning when the rescue of their loved ones appeared imminent. "Even, nature looks cheerful today,” Jaimal Singh said, hours before his brother Gabbar Singh's evacuation.
Some villagers had claimed that a temple dedicated to local deity Baba Baukhnag had been shifted for the tunnel project, and blamed this for the disaster. Dhami said a temple will be built now at the entrance of the tunnel.