At 4.10 pm on Monday, 41-year-old Mani Ram emerged after spending nine days in the dark, counting every minute between life and death. Barely 25 minutes later, 21-year-old Satish Tomar followed.
Both of them smiled, then waved to the cheering crowd and rescue teams from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). It was a milestone in one of the biggest rescue operations of its kind in Himachal Pradesh.
The two were among the three workers who got trapped after a portion of the tunnel, being constructed near Bilaspur as part of the Rs 2,200-crore Kiratpur-Nerchowk-Manali four-lane road project, caved in on September 12.
But amid the smiles and cheers, there was a note of caution from Mansi Sahay Thakur, the IAS officer in Bilaspur on her first posting as a Deputy Commissioner. “The operation is not over yet. We are still searching for the third worker,” she said.
Thakur was referring to 51-year-old Hriday Ram, a father of eight from Dayargi village in Mandi, who remains trapped inside.
But the official did take a moment to let Monday’s rescue sink in. “Yes, I am very much relieved, the operation was tough. It was the mother of all underground rescue operations,” Thakur said, adding that a probe will soon be launched into the collapse.
Mani Ram and Satish Tomar, meanwhile, were taken to the Bilaspur zonal hospital where their condition was described as “stable”.
Trying to remove debris, we suspect that the 3rd worker could be inside the debris:OP Singh (DG,NDRF)on tunnel mishap pic.twitter.com/DzC3ULgNOm
— ANI (@ANI_news) September 21, 2015
Relieved that 2 workers have been rescued, operation will not stop till the third worker is found: Virbhadra Singh (HP CM) on Tunnel mishap
— ANI (@ANI_news) September 21, 2015
Minutes before his rescue, Tomar, from Toru village in Sirmaur, had asked his rescuers: “Is it day or night outside?” On the way to the hospital, he had a request for his brother, Vinod: “Please get my cellphone recharged. I want to talk to my friends and parents at home.”
In the hospital, the mood lifted. Tomar turned to Mani Ram, who was still wearing the dark glasses given by the rescue team. “Amrish Puri lag rahe ho, yaar (You are looking like Amrish Puri),” he said with a smile, referring to the late Bollywood villain.
Mani Ram and Tomar were evacuated through a 1.3m-wide and 40m-deep vertical tunnel that was drilled over the last four days using a “super-speed” machine brought from Jaipur.
Supervised by NDRF Commandant Jaideep Singh, the rescuers had also built a one and-a-half km link road overnight to start vertical drilling, as horizontal evacuation was turning out to be “slow and risk-prone”.
Today, it took just one hour for the final push to reach the two workers after the disappointment of Sunday when rains hit the rescue, and the drilling machine developed a technical snag.
Even though the machine was back in action today, there were some tense moments as the first foray, at 9.21 am, by NDRF rescuer Naresh Pal, hit a 2-ft block that could not be removed even with a gas cutter. On Pal’s advice, the heavy driller was pressed back into action to clear the cement and steel.
“If manual cutting had been done, it would have taken one or two days more. We couldn’t wait indefinitely as the men had to be taken out,” said Thakur.
Then, it was the turn of the second NDRF rescuer, Ashok Kumar Samota, to drop down using ropes around 3.15 pm. Within minutes, in an operation monitored on camera, Samota reached Mani Ram.
Looking back, officials said the first breakthrough in the rescue came on the third day. That was when a “channel of communication” was established with Mani Ram and Tomar, who responded when a tiny camera and microphone was dropped down the tunnel.
They were given food, water and medicines, with a medical team keeping a close watch on their health.
“Today, it is Diwali in our village. My family, parents and grandmother, are dancing over the news of my brother Satish’s rescue. It’s a rebirth for him,” said Vinod Tomar, an engineer, who had reached the rescue site on Sunday.
”All of us have been watching every scene on TV channels. There were moments of despair for everyone. But I am thankful to God and happy that Satish was brave and kept his hopes alive,” he added.
Vinod said officials told him that his brother stayed strong even under extreme pressure. “Sometimes, he recited poetry. He once asked the rescue team to arrange a shaving kit for him. ‘My beard has grown, I need to get a shave and look like a human being’, he told them,” said Vinod.
Mani Ram’s younger brother, Moti Ram, said he was getting frequent calls on his cellphone from people wanting to talk to the rescued worker. “But there are very strict orders not to talk about anything. I have been told to keep him in a happy mood,” said Moti Ram, from Kerari village in Mandi.
However, at the other end of the pendulum were Hriday Ram’s son-in-law Shiv Kumar and nephew Pankaj who had conducted prayers this morning at a temple nearby “to pray for his return”.
Pankaj said Ram has two wives, two sons and six daughters. “He had earlier worked in tunnels at Uri (Jammu and Kashmir) and the Koldam Dam (Himachal),” he added.
“The family is in crisis now. The administration did its best but where is the relief for us? Where is Hriday Ram?”