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Uttarakhand Glacier Burst: Rescue Work at Tapovan Tunnel Resumes After Halt as River Level Rises

Rescue operations underway near Tapovan Tunnel, after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing a massive flood  (PTI)

Rescue operations underway near Tapovan Tunnel, after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing a massive flood (PTI)

The death toll in the Uttarakhand tragedy stands at 34 with multiple agencies racing against time to reach 25-35 workers trapped inside a tunnel at the power project site.

The water level in the Dhauli Ganga river surged on Thursday, leading to temporary suspension of rescue work at the tunnel in Tapovan where 25-35 people are trapped for over four days since the glacier disaster. Security personnel at work inside the tunnel rushed out and heavy machines engaged in drilling through the debris and sludge inside were withdrawn.

Hours before the sudden rise in the water, rescuers had also begun an operation to drill through the debris from the mouth of the river to reach life-saving devices to the trapped workers, an apparent change in strategy after trying to shift mounds of debris. But as the water level rose in the river which flows into the Alaknanda, rescue workers scrambled out of the tunnel with their heavy machinery.

Chamoli District Magistrate Swati S Bhadauria said work has been temporarily halted as a precautionary measure. The Dhauli Ganga merges with the Alaknanda river system.

Shortly after it, the rescue work restarted in Joshimath. "The water level is rising, so teams were shifted to safer locations. The operation has now resumed with limited teams," said NDRF personnel engaged in the rescue work.

"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 added.

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 PTI. The focus at the moment is to take life-saving devices such as oxygen cylinders to those trapped by drilling, Raman said.

The drilling is to be done for 12 metres to access the probable location of those trapped, he added. 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 S S Deswal had told .

On Sunday, a glacier burst at Joshimath in the state's Chamoli district triggered an avalanche and a deluge in the Alaknanda river system that wreaked havoc and washed away hydroelectric stations. The death toll stands at 34 with multiple agencies racing against time to reach 25-35 workers trapped inside a tunnel at the power project site.

As per preliminary observations of experts, a hanging glacier that slipped with rock and ice falling from 5,600 metres altitude due to gravitational pull caused this disaster. The explanation comes days after Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that initial inquiry has revealed that a landslide triggered a snow avalanche covering approximately 14 square km area and caused a flash flood in Rishiganga river.

The scientists, however, say it is difficult to comment right now if climate change has been directly responsible for the February 7 catastrophic that washed away two upcoming hydropower stations, claiming at least 34 dead and 200 missing who are feared dead.

(With inputs from agencies)