Updated: February 9, 2021 12:07:07 pm
For hours until help arrived, they stayed that way – hanging on to iron bars protruding from the roof of the dark tunnel, hauling themselves up to stay above the icy cold water that had gushed in on Sunday morning.
The 12 people who were rescued from the under-construction output tunnel at the Tapovan-Vishnugad NTPC Hydel Power Project say they had no hope that they would survive, but a mobile phone proved a godsend.
“There is usually no mobile network in the tunnel but on Sunday, we got it for two minutes, enough to make a call to one of our officers,” said Basant Bahadur, 26, one of the 12 rescued from the tunnel Sunday afternoon who are now recovering at the ITBP Hospital in Joshimath.
The tunnel is a few metres ahead of the main 1,900p-metre tunnel at Tapovan, in which around 35 people are believed to be still stuck.
Among the 12 who were rescued is geologist K Sriniwas Reddy, 50. “The weather was clear on Sunday after two days of rain and snow, and it was not like it had rained a lot. We never anticipated this. We heard people call out, asking us to get out. We tried to run out but it was too late. The water and debris came gushing in and all 12 of us were stuck. We tried to save ourselves by holding onto iron bars,” Reddy said from his hospital bed.
As they waited for help to arrive, the only way they could survive was by hanging on to the iron bars on the ceiling of the tunnel. “The tunnel was 3 metres wide and 6 metres high. Water started to fill up and soon there was ice cold water, at least 2 metres high, below us. We could do nothing but hang on. After some time we realised that the water level was stagnant and started to move ahead towards the mouth of the tunnel. Cold water had filled our gum boots and our hands were stiff after holding on to the iron bars for so long,” said Reddy, who is from Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh, while most of the labourers on the site are from Nepal.
Reddy said his wife and children were very worried when they heard the news on TV. “As soon as I got out and reached the hospital, I called her and told her all of us were okay. The scenes she saw on TV were horrific,” he said.
Basant, who is from Nepal and has been working at Tapovan for three years, said, “We started work around 8 am and heard a loud noise at 10.30 am. The length of the finished tunnel is supposed to be 360 metres but only 300 metres has been dug out so far. That is where we were. We didn’t get a chance to run out before the water and debris started gushing in at great speed. But there was a small hole through which a ray of light, and perhaps the mobile network, penetrated. Once we managed to call our supervisors, it took 2-3 hours for us to be rescued. They came with an excavator and pulled us out using ropes,” he said.
According to Dr Jyoti Khambra, Assistant Commander at the ITBP Hospital, no one among the 12 has serious injuries. “They had scrapes on their bodies and were very cold, but there seems to be no lasting damage. They underwent great mental trauma but we are doing what we can,” she said.
The labourers who escaped the flood say they lost all their savings.
“We worked here for six months, and I had managed to save Rs 60,000. All of it has been washed away. The only clothes we are left with are what the people here (at the ITBP camp) gave us. We have lost everything,” said Kiran Vishwakarma, 30, a worker at the NTPC site.
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