It has been the longest and perhaps, the most difficult search and rescue operation witnessed in recent times – a team of Indian Navy divers are toiling away at the illegal rat-hole coal mine site in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, trying to locate the lost body of one of the 14 miners officially stated to be missing.
It has been the longest and perhaps, the most difficult search and rescue operation witnessed in recent times – a team of Indian Navy divers are toiling away at the illegal rat-hole coal mine site in East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, trying to locate the lost body of one of the 14 miners officially stated to be missing. The incident took place on December 13 last year when 15 miners got trapped in a flooded rat-hole inside the almost 350-feet deep mine.
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It has been more than a week since the second body was detected on January 26, and even as the Navy is continuing search operations overnight using their underwater remotely operated vehicle (UWROV), there has been no success in locating the body lost in the depths of darkness. Sources said the Navy is facing a host of problems like equipment malfunction, running out of gas, loss of visibility inside the mine, flow reversal, siphon condition, toxic gases besides falling debris and turbidity. The Navy has requested the administration to suspend pumping operations to help them function the UWROV without any obstacle.
Though necessary preparations have been taken for divers to work in contaminated water conditions and extreme depths, the unregulated and unscientific mine with a web of rat holes has been one of the biggest challenges for rescue teams trying to locate the trapped miners. Positive pressure full-face masks, quick-release blocks to a redundant air source, and drysuits are being used by Navy divers to operate inside the mine.
More than 50 days since rescue operations began at Khloo Ryngksan where the tragedy took place, and so far the Navy and NDRF have been able to retrieve just one body of a migrant labourer. The deceased was identified as Amir Hussain from Chirang district in neighbouring Assam. The first body was detected after 32 days, and pulled up to the surface with much difficulty. In worst case scenario, the second body possibly slipped from the ROV into the depths of the mine – a situation also reported during the retrieval operation of the first body that was pulled out on January 24.
Despite crores of litres of water being pumped out every day, the water level inside the mine remains the same. The district administration on Friday said that the services of Odisha Fire and Disaster Rescue team are ‘no longer required’ in pumping operations since Coal India Limited and Kirloskar Brothers (KBL) are using submersible pumps to drain out water.
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) continues to provide help and assistance to the rescue agencies at site. The NDRF had recovered three helmets on the first day of rescue operations. Meanwhile, the army has been called in for logistics support with troops of the 14 Assam Regiment of 24 Mountain Brigade setting up tents stocked with ration and warm clothes, a 10 KV generator and a 2000 liters water bowser close to the mine site. The temporary army camp has saved the navy at least 3-4 hours of transit time, which now enables them to work overnight at the site.
Earlier, both the Centre and the state government told the Supreme Court that the rescue operation would not be called off and that no rescue agency would leave the site.
The status report submitted on behalf of Meghalaya government mentioned that “presumably, and as per the latest reports, the bodies of the remaining miners are behind the body detected on January 16”.
As teams continue with the search and retrieval operations, locals said that only conventional methods used by the villagers engaged in mining activities can help locate and retrieve the bodies. The rat-hole coal mines present in Saipung river valley are said to be interconnected, and the water would otherwise be pulled out simultaneously for a certain period of time from each of the mine shaft.
In locating the first body, sources said help was sought from the five survivors of the tragedy who supposedly have a fair idea of the layout of the mine. Sources said the Navy is also facing a loss of guidance to locate the second body from one of the many rat holes inside the flooded mine.
The sluggish pace of rescue work now has left people questioning about the effectiveness of the mission that had started quite late.