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Uttarakhand flash flood: Fresh scare, officials say can’t give time frame on rescue

On Thursday, a fresh attempt to reach the trapped men by drilling into an underground tunnel, located 12 metres below the tunnel where the authorities had been looking, failed. Government officials and NTPC authorities revealed this at a joint press briefing on the situation.

Written by Lalmani Verma | Joshimath, Papovan |
Updated: February 12, 2021 11:59:08 am
Site of the Tapovan hydel project as rescue works are underway on Wednesday after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing massive flooding in Dhauli Ganga River, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

THERE was fresh scare at the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga rivers, the sites of Sunday’s flash flood disaster in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, following a rise in their water levels on Thursday — leading to a temporary halt in rescue operations.

Even as the toll climbed to 36, with two more bodies recovered, more than 160 people are still missing, and the authorities admitted that they could give no time frame on when they would be able to reach 34 of them believed to be stuck inside a tunnel at NTPC’s hydro power project site in Tapovan area of Chamoli district.

On Thursday, a fresh attempt to reach the trapped men by drilling into an underground tunnel, located 12 metres below the tunnel where the authorities had been looking, failed. Government officials and NTPC authorities revealed this at a joint press briefing on the situation.

Asked how long the rescue operations could take, Garhwal Divisional Commissioner Ravinath Raman said they couldn’t say anything. “It depends on how much slush and muck is there inside the tunnel. We are working according to the evolving situation,” he said, adding that NTPC had informed them that an attempt to dig into the second tunnel had run into technical difficulties.

Raman also said that they will continue removing slush from the tunnel above it, as was being done earlier.

NTPC Director (Projects) Ujjwal Bhattacharya said they had cleared slush from up to 80 metres of the first tunnel, but the amount of muck also posed a threat to the rescue crew. He said they had started drilling into the second tunnel around 3 am, but hit a mixture of water and muck 6 metres in. About further strategy, Bhattacharya said, “Right now, I am looking at only the bird’s eye — rescue.”

Asked what were the chances of survival of the men still stuck inside, Bhattacharya said, “We all pray to Badrivishal bhagwan that we can find the labourers. I don’t want to say anything more. I am only a technical guy. I am doing my job.”

On whether there was some confusion over the exact location of the trapped men, Bhattacharya said nobody could guess how they would have reacted seeing the muck and water gush in. He noted that with the power supply immediately cut off, it would have been dark, making the situation even more confusing for the men.

About escape routes inside the tunnel for such a situation, NTPC project in-charge Rajendra Prasad Ahirwar said there were 15 cusecs of water in the Dhauli Ganga river on Sunday when the work was on. “Within 10 minutes, water rose to 40 metres. No one can be prepared for a response to that in 10 minutes even after all the preparations, efforts and designs,” the official said, adding that even half-an-hour of warning could have made all the difference, and that the workers were well-trained and aware of the risks. He also pointed out that the terrain of the area meant they couldn’t just drill in anywhere to get access.

Even as the press conference was on, officials were alerted about the rivers Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga being in spate again. As panic set in and people were cleared from the area, personnel of the NDRF, ITBP and Army deployed in the rescue operations at the tunnel were moved to higher locations and machines engaged in the excavation of slush withdrew.

Superintendent of Police, Chamoli, Yashwant Singh Chauhan said the rescue operations resumed after about an hour.

District Disaster Management Officer N K Joshi said it was natural for water levels in the Dhauli Ganga to rise and fall as per the melting of snow in the higher reaches. The Rishi Ganga river joins the Dhauli Ganga near Raini village.

Raini village pradhan Bhwan Rana said the villagers continue to be scared and are spending nights in the forests rather than their homes for fear of more flash floods.

Governor Baby Rani Maurya visited the affected Tapovan area Thursday and took stock of the rescue and relief operations.

Sunday’s flash flood had washed away a hydro power project on the Rishi Ganga river, and damaged NTPC’s power project structures on Dhauli Ganga.

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