Indian rescuers on Tuesday pulled out all 41 construction workers trapped for 17 days inside a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas, hours after drilling through the debris of rock, concrete and earth to reach them.
The evacuation of the men - low-wage workers from some of India's poorest states - began more than six hours after rescuers broke through the debris in the tunnel in Uttarakhand state, which caved in on Nov. 12.
They were pulled out on wheeled stretchers through a 90 cm wide steel pipe, with the entire process being completed in about an hour.
"Their condition is first-class and absolutely fine ... just like yours or mine. There is no tension about their health," said Wakil Hassan, a rescue team leader.
The first to be evacuated, a short man wearing a dark grey winter jacket and a yellow hard-hat, was garlanded with marigold flowers and welcomed in traditional Indian style inside the tunnel by state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and federal deputy highways minister V.K. Singh.
Some walked out smiling and were hugged by Dhami, while others made gestures of thanks with clasped hands or sought blessings by touching his feet. All were garlanded and also presented with a white fabric stole by Dhami and Singh.
"I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone," Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media platform X.
"It is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait these friends of ours will now meet their loved ones. The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough."
Federal road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari thanked rescue workers and said in a post on X that a "safety audit of the tunnel will also be done now".
Ambulances that had lined up with lights flashing at the mouth of the tunnel transported the workers to a hospital about 30 km away.
Local residents gathered outside the tunnel set off firecrackers, distributed sweets and shouted slogans hailing Mother India.
The 41 men have been getting food, water, light, oxygen and medicines through a pipe, but efforts to dig a tunnel to rescue them with high-powered drilling machines were frustrated by a series of snags.
Government agencies managing the unprecedented crisis had on Monday turned to "rat miners" to drill through the rocks and gravel by hand from inside the evacuation pipe pushed through the debris after machinery failed.
The miners are experts at a primitive, hazardous and controversial method used mostly to get at coal deposits through narrow passages, and get their name because they resemble burrowing rats.
The miners, brought from central India, worked through Monday night and finally broke through the estimated 60-metres of rocks, earth and metal on Tuesday afternoon.
The tunnel is part of the $1.5 billion Char Dham highway, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's most ambitious projects, aimed at connecting four Hindu pilgrimage sites through an 890- km network of roads.
Authorities have not said what caused the cave-in but the region is prone to landslides, earthquakes and floods.
A contruction worker (front 2L) interacting with Chief minister of Uttarakhand Pushkar Singh Dhami (R) following his rescue from inside the under construction Silkyara tunnel during a rescue operation for trapped workers after a section of the tunnel collapsed in the Uttarkashi district of India's Uttarakhand state. AFP/ Department of Information and Public Relation, Uttarakhand
A contruction worker (front L) interacting with India's Minister of State of Road Transport and Highways VK Singh (C) and Chief minister of Uttarakhand Pushkar Singh Dhami (R) following his rescue from inside the under construction Silkyara tunnel during a rescue operation for trapped workers after a section of the tunnel collapsed in the Uttarkashi district of India's Uttarakhand state. AFP/ Department of Information and Public Relation, Uttarakhand
Emergency vehicles operate at the site where workers are trapped after a tunnel collapsed, in Uttarkashi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, Tuesday. REUTERS
An ambulance carries survivors as rescue operations are underway to rescue trapped workers after a tunnel collapsed, in Uttarkashi in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, Tuesday. REUTERS