Uttarkhand floods: Toll rises to 35, 169 still missing; water rise in Dhauliganga briefly halts rescue ops at NTPC tunnel

Uttarakhand governor Baby Rani Maurya, who visited the Tapovan tunnel to take stock of the rescue work, had to face the ire of the kin of those trapped inside the tunnel as well as relatives of those who went missing after the barrage at the same hydel project

FP Staff February 12, 2021 14:02:46 IST
Uttarkhand floods: Toll rises to 35, 169 still missing; water rise in Dhauliganga briefly halts rescue ops at NTPC tunnel

Operations resumes at the site. ANI

Drilling operations started by rescue agencies to establish contact with over 30 people trapped in the Tapovan tunnel in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district were halted for some time on Thursday as the water level in the Dhauliganga river rose again briefly.

Dhauliganga river is part of the Alaknanda river system, which witnessed flash floods on Sunday after part of a glacier broke, bringing with it a deadly mixture of ice, rock and water. The flash floods consumed nearly everything on its path, including portions of the Tapovan–Vishnugad hydel project.

As of Thursday, 169 people remain missing while the toll in the Uttarakhand disaster rose to 35 with the recovery of another body in Gauchar.

In an apparent change in strategy, the rescuers are now also focusing on drilling through the hardened debris in the choked tunnel in Chamoli district, rather than just shifting mounds of silt and sludge heaped there by the sudden flood. The aim, for now, is to set up a life-saving system, possibly to pump oxygen into the blocked tunnel.

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and the Army are part of the multi-agency rescue effort, which continues even as hopes of finding the trapped workers alive recede with each passing hour.

Hours before the sudden surge in the water level, rescuers had begun an operation to drill through the debris from the mouth of the tunnel to reach life-saving devices to the trapped workers.

But as information on the rise in water level upstream came, rescue workers scrambled out of the tunnel with their heavy machinery. A joint press briefing by the rescue agencies also came to a sudden halt.

Chamoli District Magistrate Swati S Bhadauria said work was temporarily halted as a precautionary measure.

The operation resumed after 45 minutes but officials said they were only sending smaller teams for now to the rescue site.

Rescue ops focus on providing life-saving devices to trapped workers

As concerns mount over the lives of those trapped inside the tunnel, the focal point of the rescue operation remains the 1.5-km "head-race tunnel" — a part of the 2.5-km long network of tunnels.

"A drilling operation was started by the rescue teams at 2 am to peep into the slush-flushing tunnel that is about 12-13 metres below," Vivek Kumar Pandey, the spokesperson for the lead rescue agency, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), said in Delhi.

As the continuous flow of slush and silt remains a major obstacle between the rescuers and those trapped inside, a boring operation by a huge machine is being undertaken to see if this problem can be addressed in a different way and the teams can go further deep inside, he further said.

Drilling through the debris started from around 68 metres inside the tunnel, Garhwal Commissioner Ravinath Raman, who is supervising the massive rescue effort at the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) project site, told news agency PTI.

The focus at the moment is to take life-saving devices such as oxygen cylinders to those trapped by drilling, Raman said and added that the drilling is to be done for 12 metres to access the probable location of those trapped.

Till Wednesday, about 120 metres of slush from the mouth of the tunnel was cleared and those trapped inside were stated to be located somewhere at 180 metres, where the tunnel takes a slip or a turn.

"More slush and water coming from inside the tunnel is making the way ahead difficult," Pandey had said on Wednesday.

ITBP chief SS Deswal had told PTI on Wednesday that his men and those from other agencies will continue with the rescue operation till "any length of time" or till a logical conclusion is arrived at and the trapped workers are located.

He had expressed hope that those trapped inside might be safe with the help of possible air vents in the structure.

An officer said that no doubt that those trapped inside must be in a bad situation without food and water, but there is "hope against hope that they are surviving somehow as the temperature inside the tunnel is about 20-25 degrees Celsius and some oxygen is possibly available to them."
The Public Relations Office (Defence) in Lucknow tweeted:

Workers at the 480-MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel power project of the NTPC got trapped after a surge of water in the Alaknanda river system.

Apart from the over 450 personnel from the ITBP, the NDRF, the SDRF and the Army, the family members of those possibly trapped inside have stayed put outside the tunnel in anticipation of some news.

At the Tapovan press briefing, Garhwal Commissioner Raman was asked about reports of rising water level in the upper reaches of Rishiganga. The official said he had no authentic information, terming it as no more than a "rumour" at that point. Just then, fresh information came in and the press conference dispersed.

"Our strategy is evolving as the situation unfolds," he told reporters later. "We are coordinating with NTPC officials and scientists in running the rescue operation," he said.

Garhwal Range DIG Niru Garg said, "As you can see, all the agencies are working with perfect coordination with a resolve to save as many lives as possible."

When asked about the possible condition of those trapped in the tunnel for over four days, another official said, "I am a technical person. I wouldn't hazard a guess. But as the Governor said, let's all pray to Badri Vishal (Lord Vishnu) that all of them are safe."

Uttarakhand governor faces ire of families

Meanwhile, Uttarakhand governor Baby Rani Maurya, who visited the site to take stock of the rescue work had to face the ire of the kin of those trapped inside the tunnel, reported news agency PTI.

The families waiting for over four days to be reunited with their loved ones broke down before the governor, seeking her intervention to expedite the rescue operations at the tunnel.

The worried relatives also claimed that some of the machines were not working properly, slowing the pace of the rescue effort. Some also claimed that all the effort was focused on the tunnel, and not on finding people who went missing from the barrage at the same hydel project.

Maurya asked them to be patient as relentless efforts were on to rescue those trapped inside the tunnel. "A multi-agency rescue operation has been going on. No effort is being spared. People should be patient," she said.

Uttarkhand floods Toll rises to 35 169 still missing water rise in Dhauliganga briefly halts rescue ops at NTPC tunnel

Rawat okays relocation of 50 families

Even as rescue efforts are underway and the state grapples with the effects of Sunday's disaster, Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat gave the go-ahead to relocate over 50 families living in areas extremely vulnerable to natural disasters in four districts of the state.

Rawat cleared the proposal by the Disaster Management Department to relocate and rehabilitate 30 families from Uttarkashi, 13 from Chamoli and four each from Bageshwar and Tehri districts, an official release.

The families belong to Astal village in Uttarkashi, Faldia and Saned in Chamoli, Malladesh in Bageshwar and Bethan in Tehri district, it said.

The chief minister also gave his consent to release the funds required for the purpose, the release added.

AAP MP demands higher compensation

Also on Thursday, AAP MP Sanjay Singh in the Rajya Sabha raised a demand for increasing the compensation to the victims of the flash flood.

"The compensation amount should be at least Rs 25 lakh," Singh said, adding that the compensation should also be paid for the property damaged in the disaster.

The Uttarakhand chief minister had announced a compensation of Rs four lakh to the kin of the deceased while Prime Minister Narendra Modi had approved Rs two lakh ex-gratia from the PMNRF each to the next of kin of those who lost their lives.

Raising the issue through a Zero Hour mention, the AAP MP claimed 173 persons are still missing and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel are carrying out rescue operations.

Police teams continue search operations

Meanwhile, eight teams of the Uttarakhand Police continued searching operation from Reni to Srinagar in the Chamoli district, according to a tweet by the Press Information Bureau in Uttarakhand.

"Search is being carried out by drone and motorboat. Also, a dog squad team of the SDRF is also present at the spot," it said in a tweet.

With inputs from PTI

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