More than two weeks after they were trapped, rescue operations are still underway to find the 15 miners inside a rat-hole mine in Meghalaya. Even as IAF, Odisha fire department officials have joined the NDRF in the rescue operations, families of the miners are grim about the prospects of their return.
As the rescuers race against time to find the miners, here is a brief timeline of the incident
December 13: Miners hailing from the East Jaintia Hills and West Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya and Assam had started working in the mine from 8 am. In the evening, water gushed in from the nearby Lytein river and flooded the mine. After reaching the bottom of the pit, the miners entered the horizontal manholes, often termed as ‘rat-holes’, as each just about fits one person to get in. According to villagers, one of the diggers could have accidentally punctured the walls of the cave and the river water gushed in immediately, trapping the miners inside.
The mine is illegal because the technique used here is ‘rat-hole technique’, which was banned by the NGT in 2014. The technique primarily comprises digging a narrow tunnel to reach coal seams underground. At the bottom tunnel, where coal seams are found, ‘rat holes’ — just big enough for a worker to enter — are dug in several directions for workers to move in.
December 14: Chief Minister Conrad Sangma called the incident “unfortunate.” “At the same time, we are aware that illegal activities were going on. And appropriate action will be taken at the appropriate time against people who are involved in illegal mining,” he said.
At the same time, a case is registered against the owner of the mine.
December 15: The police arrested the man involved in hiring labourers and overseeing the work near the mine. Krip was wanted by the police for causing death due to negligence and various sections of the Prevention of Damages to Public Property Act and the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the SP said.
December 16: The NDRF and SDRF continue to search for the trapped miners.
December 17: Chief Minister Conard Sangma says that although strict action against any illegal coal mining is taken whenever reported, the size of the state and the remoteness of the certain mining locations often makes it difficult for the police to track down illegal mining.
December 18: Rains act as a spoiler in the rescue operations. “It has been raining incessantly since last evening, and that has caused problems in the search and rescue operations. Even reaching the spot is extremely difficult today. We need more effective pumps to pump out the water from the mine — and the ones being used now are not enough,” Superintendent of Police of EJH district, Sylvester Nongtnger told The Indian Express.
December 19: The rescue operations enter day 7. While earlier 13 miners were expected to be trapped inside the mine, the police said the number now stands at 15. The exact number of miners could not be ascertained as its owners did not maintain a logbook.
December 20: Over 100 NDRF and SDRF personnel are engaged in the rescue operations. Mining expert and award-winning rescuer Jaswant Singh Gill visited the spot and suggested that the state government should seek the help of Coal India in the rescue operation. Gill, who shot to fame after he successfully rescued 64 miners from a flooded quarry in West Bengal in 1989, also expressed concern after seeing the water level in the mine, a police officer said.
December 21: The NDRF suggests the district administration to ask the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to deploy submersible water pumps to reduce the water level.
December 22: As operations enter day 10, water level recedes in the mine. CM Sangma said the state government has written to the Coal India seeking their special pumps (high-power submersible pumps) to aid the rescue efforts. “We are running out of time and I hope they respond to the request. We are waiting,” he said.
December 23: The rescue efforts are hindered due to lack of equipment. Only two high power pumps were used to flush out the water from the mine. About 200 high power pumps are needed to flush out the water from the flooded mine, CM Sangma said.
December 24: The rescue operations have been halted at the site as the two pumps used to drain out water, were proved ineffective. Assistant Commandant of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Santosh Singh, temporarily posted in Saipung to lead the rescue operations, told The Indian Express over phone that there was no fresh pumping out of the water in the collapsed mine because the two 25 Horse Power pumps available with them were not proving effective. “Unless we get around ten 100 Horse Power pumps, there is no use pumping out the water. The water continues to seep in and the level remains the same,” Singh said. “That’s why we have temporarily suspended the operations. We will continue once the pumps arrive. We have conveyed our demand to the administration.”
December 25: Relatives of the workers said they had accepted that the men would not return.“Leave alone rescuing anyone or finding dead bodies, the authorities have been unsuccessful in even reducing the water level. It shows that the government is not interested in this rescue operation. We are slowly coming to terms with the fact that our men will not return home alive,” a relative said.
December 26: Congress chief Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Modi of ignoring the plight of miners trapped in Meghalaya. “15 miners have been struggling for air in a flooded coal mine for two weeks. Meanwhile, PM struts about on Bogibeel Bridge posing for cameras. His government refuses to organise high-pressure pumps for the rescue. PM please save the miners,” Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter.
December 27: The NDRF officials reported a “foul odour” from near the mine, suggesting that the miners are dead and the bodies are beginning to decompose. No clue has been made on the location of the miners and only three helmets have been recovered till now. The NDRF divers, as per their training and guidelines, only attempt rescue operations when the water level is less than 40 feet. Currently, the water level in the mine in 70 feet.
“Since we have not been able to go inside, we don’t know the answers to three main questions: how many rat-hole sized tunnels have been dug at the base of the pit to extract coal; what is the size of the base area; and what is its depth,” NDRF assistant commandant Santosh Singh said.
December 28: An Indian Force plane with heavy equipment, airlifted NDRF personnel and Odisha Fire officials from Bhubaneswar to Guwahati. The pumps and officials will then be sent to the accident site. A delegation of Coal India Limited and Kirloskar Brothers Ltd are also going to the site. Both the companies have agreed to provide technical expertise and pumps to drain out the water from the mine.
A team of Indian Navy divers is also dispatched from Visakhapatnam to extend help in the rescue process.
December 29: A team of 14 Navy divers led by Lt Commander R Khetwal and a 21-member Odisha Fire Service contingent visited the site to conduct a recce. The Navy divers are equipped with specialised diving equipment, including a re-compression chamber and remotely operated vehicles capable of searching underwater.
December 30: A team of six Indian Navy divers went down the main shaft of the mine, but could not reach its bottom. The effort of the Navy divers was to attempt to reach the base of the mine, crossing the water column and find out how many “rat-hole” horizontal tunnels are there in which the workers are feared to be dead. Sources in the NDRF said that though the initial assessment of the water column’s depth was 70 feet, measurements Sunday suggest it to be around 120 feet, making pumping out water harder.
Coal India has also dispatched eight high powered pumps which are expected to reach the site in another 2 to 3 days. Kirloskar Brothers Ltd’s 10 pumps are already on the site.
December 31: The Navy divers have surveyed the basement and are likely to drop equipment to get an idea of the depth of the tunnel today.