Indian workers were greeted with wild cheers and flower garlands Tuesday as rescuers safely brought out all 41 from the collapsed Himalayan road tunnel where they were trapped after a marathon 17-day engineering operation.
With beaming smiles, the rescued men were welcomed as heroes after being hauled through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe on stretchers specially fitted with wheels, where they were greeted by state officials before embracing their families.
“Hail mother India!” crowds outside the tunnel cheered, as news spread that all had made it safely out of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where they had been incarcerated since a partial collapse on November 12.
Relatives outside celebrated after previous hopes of reaching the men were repeatedly dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines, in a rescue operation the government said took place in “challenging Himalayan terrain”.
“We are thankful to God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them,” Naiyer Ahmad told AFP, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad was among the trapped workers, and who had been camping out in bitterly cold temperatures at the site for over two weeks.
“We are extremely happy, no words can explain it,” said Musarrat Jahan, the wife of one rescued worker Sabah Ahmad told AFP by phone from Bihar state, where she had been waiting desperately for news.
“Not only my husband got a new life, we also got a new life. We will never forget it”.
After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners dug the final section by hand using a so-called “rat-hole” technique, a three-person team working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.
Before Tuesday, the workers were seen alive for the first time last week, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity were delivered.