The workers have been trapped in the 12-ft-high and about 2.5-km-long ‘head race tunnel’.
The death toll from the Uttarakhand glacier disaster rose to 31 with five more bodies being recovered, officials said on Tuesday as multiple agencies raced against time to reach about 30 workers trapped inside a tunnel in a power project site and 175 people remained missing.
Two of the bodies were recovered from the debris in Raini village, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) officials said, two days after a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier possibly burst its banks and triggered an avalanche and floods in the Alaknanda river system.
The State Emergency Operation Centre said five bodies were found in the morning, taking the death toll to 31, and estimated that 175 people are still missing.
With the hours ticking by inexorably, fears escalated about those missing since the disaster struck on Sunday morning, according to officials who stepped up efforts to locate survivors.
The missing people include those working at NTPC’s 480 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad project and the 13.2 MW Rishiganga Hydel Project and villagers whose homes nearby were washed away.
Teams of the Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) coordinated efforts to rescue about 30 people who were working in a tunnel at the Tapovan-Vishnugad project when the waters came rushing in.
The workers have been trapped in the 12-ft-high and about 2.5-km-long ‘head race tunnel’ (HRT).
“Clearing of debris and slush continued the whole night. About 120 metres of the tunnel entrance stretch is now clear,” ITBP spokesperson Vivek Kumar Pandey said in Delhi.
“The height of the accumulated slush has reduced more. ITBP personnel are waiting to enter as soon as any movement deep inside the tunnel is possible,” he said.
A senior official added that the rescuers have not been able to make any contact with those stuck inside but are hopeful for “signs of life”.
Relief is also being distributed by helicopters among villagers cut off due to the washing away of a bridge in the avalanche at Malari.
About 100 ration kits have been distributed in the affected areas of 13 villages with a total population of around 2,500, officials said.
The villages that lost road connectivity in the wake of the calamity are Raini Palli, Pang, Lata, Suraithota, Suki, Bhalgaon, Tolma, Fagrasu, Long Segdi, Gahar, Bhangyul, Juwagwad and Jugju.
On Tuesday, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat undertook an aerial survey of the affected areas, visited the ITBP hospital in Joshimath, about 295 km from Dehradun, and met the 12 workers who were rescued from a small tunnel in Tapovan on Sunday evening.
“The priority is to get to those trapped inside the tunnel and save as many lives as possible,” he said.
Mr. Rawat also visited some of the affected areas to meet residents of the disaster-hit villages.
Additional heavy machines could be pressed into service to expedite the process of clearing the tonnes of debris inside the tunnel, blocking the path of rescue personnel.
The clearing of slush and debris is a painstaking exercise but the multi-agency group of rescuers are there in large numbers and taking turns to dig in deeper with the help of heavy machines, officials said.
The teams have been working since Sunday to clear the tunnel and rescue the trapped.
As the temperature dipped to freezing levels at the site, awash with slush, silt and debris, bonfires were lit at multiple locations to keep the rescuers warm.
The tunnel has become the focal point of rescue operations.
While the ITBP has deployed as many as 300 personnel for conducting rescue operations at this site, many NDRF, SDRF and Army personnel are also present.
The ITBP and other rescuers are carrying tall wooden planks which are being used by rescuers to wade in through the slush and will later also help create a platform to pull out the trapped people using ropes.
Pandey had earlier said these teams are ready with dragon light sets, oxygen cylinders and stretchers to provide immediate medical help to those trapped inside.