Updated: February 9, 2021 9:55:51 am
Over 24 hours since a flash flood struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, rescue operations continued well into the night on Monday as personnel of the ITBP, NDRF and Army worked to locate around 170 people, mostly labourers working at two power projects, who are still reported missing.
According to the State Emergency Control Room, 26 bodies have been recovered so far from the project sites of NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro Power Project and the privately owned Rishiganga power project.
Officials said rescue operations are centred around a 1,900-metre-long tunnel at NTPC’s Tapovan site, where at least 35 people are believed to be trapped. A barrage at the project site had been washed away in the flood that saw water rise up to 70 feet, leading to debris blocking the 20-feet-wide opening of the tunnel.
The hope that rescue teams are clinging onto at this point is that the tunnel branches into two after 180 metres. ITBP spokesperson Vivek Pandey said the slush is expected to be less from there on.
“Unless the victims drowned in the slush in the first few hundred metres, there is every chance they are still alive deep inside the tunnel. Since it’s a long tunnel, there is likelihood of enough oxygen being trapped there. Once we find even a small way through the slush, we will infuse oxygen into the tunnel through pipes,” an ITBP officer said.
Uttarakhand DGP Ashok Kumar told The Indian Express that they had managed to reach 130 metres into the Tapovan tunnel. “We do not anticipate much trouble after we reach 200 metres,” he added.
Manjunath S R, commandant, Indian Reserve Battalion, who is coordinating the rescue operations at the site, said, “Till yesterday, we had managed to go 80 metres into the tunnel and managed another 50 metres by Monday evening. The operation will continue the whole night. There is a lot of slush that needs to be removed. The armed forces, NDRF, SDRF and police are all working in coordination.”
As the rescue operations continued at the project site, over 50 km away, in Bader village of Chamoli, Bansilal, 72, has been waiting with hope and dread for that phone call with news of his son, Mahendra Kumar, who has been missing since the floods. A helper at the NTPC project, Mahendra, 32, is feared to be among those stuck in the tunnel.
“Kuch khaas umeed to nahin hai. Kafi samay ho gaya aur woh ab tak andar hai (I have no big hopes. He has been stuck for long inside the tunnel),” Bansilal said through sobs.
Mahendra’s brother-in-law Vipin Kohli said the 32-year-old had been working at the NTPC site for about five months. “After we got to know that Mahendra was missing, I came here and checked the duty register and found out that he was on duty inside the tunnel when the flood water entered the tunnel and the silt blocked it. I have been helping personnel in the rescue operation,” said Vipin, waiting a few metres away from the tunnel.
A State Disaster Relief officer said most of the workers working at the NTPC project site were employed by private contractors. “Based on the information the company has given us, there are close to 35 people stuck in the tunnel. What we don’t know is if people who were washed away upstream ended up getting stuck in the tunnel as well,” he said.
Among the personnel who went into the tunnel on Monday was SDRF’s Rakesh Rana, 32. “The debris inside the tunnel is like quicksand. I had gone in with a team in the morning. We are using excavators to remove the debris and slush but more keeps flowing in from behind. That is the biggest hindrance so far. Our priority is to rescue people alive, but we have not been able to find anyone so far,” he said.
Rana and his colleagues were flown in from Dehradun on Sunday night and reported for work at 6 am on Monday.
Madan Singh Bhandari, 62, from Kimana village in Joshimath, heard about the calamity on TV but rushed to the site after he received information that his three nephews — Kisan Singh, Arvind Singh and Rohit Singh, all in their 30s – are among those missing. “When I came here, I was told that they were working in the tunnel and are trapped there. I don’t know what will happen now,” he said.
In Raini village, where the flood first struck, washing away the Rishiganga power project and a motorable bridge over the river, Mohan Singh, who runs a photo studio in Joshinath, said his aunt Amrita Devi, 82, is among those missing. “My sister-in-law Godawari was a few metres away from my aunt and had alerted her, but by the time she could react, the water had washed her away. It has been over 24 hours and I have not heard about her from the authorities,” said Mohan.
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