The Silkyara-Barkot tunnel rescue operation culminated on November 28, 2023, with workers being evacuated one-by-one
In a remarkable demonstration of international collaboration and technical expertise, the successful rescue of 41 workers from the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand, India, in November 28, 2023, has garnered praise from across the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first to laud the rescue effort; Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also expressed his appreciation.

The tunnel, part of a construction project in Uttarkashi district, collapsed on November 12, 2023, at around 5:30 am, entrapping the workers approximately 200 meters from its entrance.

The incident prompted an immediate and intense rescue operation, named Operation Zindagi (life), coordinated by various Indian agencies including the National Disaster Response Force, State Disaster Response Force, Uttarakhand Police, and engineers from the Indian Army Corps of Engineers and Project Shivalik of the Border Roads Organisation. Significantly, the operation also saw the involvement of international experts like Australian tunneling specialist Arnold Dix and Chris Cooper​​.

The rescue operation in the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel faced significant challenges due to its construction features and geological conditions. One major issue was the absence of escape shafts, which are crucial for emergency evacuations in tunnel constructions. This lack majorly complicated the rescue efforts, as there was no pre-designed route for quick escape or access.

Additionally, the tunnel was constructed on a geological fault, a fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, which can be prone to movements or shifts. This not only increased the risk of collapses but also added complexity to the rescue operation, as the stability of the tunnel could be compromised at any time. The unpredictable nature of geological faults required the rescue team to be extremely cautious, constantly assessing the structural integrity of the tunnel while navigating the rescue.

These factors combined made the rescue operation in the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel particularly challenging and necessitated a highly strategic and carefully executed approach. Innovative strategies were employed, including the use of two tunnel boring machines and the establishment of communication with trapped workers through pipes providing oxygen, food, and a means for visual contact using an endoscopic camera. Despite setbacks, such as the failure of a tunnel boring machine and the complexity of the debris, the rescue team adapted their approach, employing manual tools like hammers and chisels in the final stages of the operation​​.

The operation culminated on November 28, with workers being evacuated one-by-one on stretchers in a painstaking process. The Government of Uttarakhand confirmed the successful rescue of all 41 workers by 20:50 IST. The rescued individuals were reported to be in good health and were taken to a medical facility in Chinyalisaur for further assessment. Notably, the Indian Air Force had a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on standby for any necessary airlifts​​​​.

Responding to this significant accomplishment, Australian PM Anthony Albanese highlighted the role of Professor Arnold Dix, a key figure in the operation, and expressed pride in his contribution. The Australian High Commissioner to India, Philip Green, also recognized the achievement and Professor Dix's crucial technical support​​.

Indian PM Narendra Modi, in his remarks, emphasized the emotional impact of the operation and lauded the rescuers for setting an example of humanity and teamwork. He personally spoke to the rescued workers, inquiring about their well-being, and acknowledged the patience and courage of the workers' families. Earlier, Prime Minister Modi had also communicated with Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, expressing his best wishes for the operation's success​​​​​​.

In his post on social media platform X, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar expressed unyielding commitment to safeguarding citizens, extending heartfelt thanks to the rescuers in the Uttarakhand tunnel incident. He also praised the resilience and hope of those who endured the ordeal.

Following this incident, the Government of Uttarakhand has constituted a six-member expert committee, led by the Director of Uttarakhand Landslide Mitigation and Management Centre, to investigate the cause of the tunnel collapse​​. This operation not only stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of the rescue teams and the trapped workers but also highlights the importance of international cooperation in handling such critical situations.