When modern equipment collapsed in the face of the dispiriting challenge, officials turned to the primitive method of rat-hole mining, used to extract coal deposits through narrow passages.
Munna Qureshi and his team 12 took up the difficult task of manually carving through the debris. They kept digging away for 24 hours, metres deep inside a 2.6-feet-wide steel pipe.
The team employed by a Delhi-based engineering firm, largely from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, succeeded heroically in their mission, as 41 workers were pulled out from the tunnel.
Netizens lauded the courageous act of the miners whose lives are often overlooked, after the mission emerged victorious.
Many highlighted the Muslim participation in the mission against the backdrop of the state-sanctioned violence and expulsion faced by Muslims in the state of Uttarakhand.
Munna Qureshi, a 29-year-old rat miner from Delhi, was the first one to reach the other side where workers were trapped since November 12.
Qureshi said that he will never forget the respect the trapped workers have given to the rat-hole miners. “They hugged me, cheered in applause, and thanked me profusely,” he added.
At 7.05 pm on Tuesday, he cleared the last rock that stood between him and the survivors.
“I removed the last rock. I could see them. Then I went to the other side. They hugged us and lifted us. And thanked us for taking us out. We worked continuously in the last 24 hours. I can’t express my happiness. I have done it for my country,” he told reporters outside the tunnel.
“I hugged one of the trapped workers and just wept,” Feroz, who dug through the last two metres of debris, said.
Vipin Rajput, one of the 12, who lives in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, said he hopes people will now consider their work noble.
“I hope they will see us with some respect now because of the rescue,” he said.
“Often, we thought we may fail. But we did at last,” said Chandran, another member of the rat-miner team.
The rescue operation began on November 12 and tried several techniques to free the trapped workers, including excavator machines, foreign-made auger machines and vertical boring machines. The first two got damaged owing to the largely unyielding debris, while the third faced a breakdown after being put to use for hours.
Finally, they turned to rat-hole technique which is illegal across India because of its inherent dangers. Rat-hole mining uses narrow pits similar to those dug by rats, just large enough for one person to enter and extract coal.
Many of the 12-man team earlier worked in granite and stone mines in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
“Four teams worked in eight-hour shifts. At a given time, three workers were inside the pipe tunnel. Our job was to remove the debris as the pipe was being pushed through the debris,” Munna Bhai from UP explained the operation.
Monu Kumar, Wakeel Khan and Parsadi Lodhi were the other rat-hole miners who reached the trapped men subsequently after their exhausting operation.