Rescuers raced to free around 35 Indian construction workers trapped in a tunnel, two days after the hydroelectric dam they were helping to build was swept away by a wall of water from a collapsed glacier that barrelled down a Himalayan river.
- Most of the missing people are trapped in a 2.5km tunnel
- Soldiers have cleared the entrance using heavy equipment and hope to soon open the tunnel
- Thermal imaging technology has been used to find survivors, while 28 bodies have so far been recovered
The workers were among 197 people who officials said were still unaccounted for as the death toll from the disaster, which also broke apart bridges, cut off villages and scarred tracts of mountain landscape, rose to 28.
Packing rocks, dirt and construction debris and thought to have been triggered when a glacier lake fed by India’s second-highest peak, Nanda Devi, collapsed, the flood swept down the Dhauliganga river on Sunday.
Officials said most of those still missing were shift workers at either the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, where the tunnel was situated, or at Rishiganga, a smaller dam which was swept away in the flood.
Soldiers using bulldozers had cleared away rocks at the mouth of the 2.5-kilometre tunnel, and video posted by the Indo-Tibetan border police service showed rescuers checking the water level deeper inside.
Rescuers hoped to open the tunnel up by Tuesday afternoon, said Ashok Kumar, director-general of police in Uttarakhand state, where the flash flood occurred.
Officials said thermal imaging equipment had also been deployed to help locate survivors, and Uttarakhand’s chief minister, Trivendra Singh Rawat, said 28 bodies had been recovered so far.
Thirteen villages that had been cut off by the floodwaters were being resupplied from the air, Home Minister Amit Shah told parliament.
A government official said many locals had apparently managed to escape the waters by fleeing to higher ground as soon as they heard the rumble of the water racing down the valley.
“The workers in the tunnel may not have heard anything and got stuck,” the official said.
‘It felt like the mountain was crashing’
One of those who made it out was Rajesh Kumar, 28, who together with others clung to scaffolding rods in the tunnel for four hours before the water level fell and they were able to escape.
“Suddenly there was a sound of whistling … there was shouting, people were telling us to come out,” he said from his hospital bed.
“We thought it was a fire. We started running but the water gushed in. It was like a Hollywood movie.
“We just kept telling each other come what may, we must not let go of the rods.”
Shopkeeper Ramesh Negi was enjoying the Sunday morning sun when he heard a loud roar and saw a huge wall of water smash into and sweep away a bridge.
Dozens of workers on the river bed and graziers leading their cattle along the mountain slopes disappeared beneath the sudden deluge, he recalled.
“There was dust and screams all over,” he said.
“We tried to alert the graziers but they were blown away by the wind pressure before being consumed by the water and slush. We can only guess what happened.”
Mangra, another survivor, remembered hearing a loud, rumbling sound and the screams of other colleagues: “Run, run, run!”
The 28-year-old scrambled out of the tunnel but six of his friends and neighbours from his village didn’t make it.
“It felt like the mountain was crashing and the Earth was moving,” he said outside the tunnel cuts and scrapes on his hands and legs.
Cause of disaster to become clearer this week
The 520-megawatt Tapovan project, being built by state firm NTPC, is one of many projects being developed to upgrade Uttarakhand’s power network.
Officials have yet to conclusively determine what caused the disaster, though scientists investigating it believe heavy snowfall followed by bright sunshine combined with a rise in temperatures may have triggered the glacier’s collapse.
A clearer picture of the circumstances is expected to emerge later this week.
The disaster has also been blamed on rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayan region caused by global warming.
Building activity for dams and dredging riverbeds for sand and the clearing of trees for new roads, some to beef up defence on the Chinese border, are other factors.