A Melbournian engineering professor and tunnelling expert is being praised for his efforts to save 41 Indian workers trapped inside a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas.
Professor Arnold Dix, President of the Geneva-based International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, oversaw the two-week Operation Zindagi to evacuate the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarkhand.
The tunnel’s entrance collapsed due to a landslide on 12 November, enveloping workers in 60 metres of dense concrete rubble and warped metal. Talking to Sunrise, Professor Dix, a Yarra Ranges resident, said he was deeply moved by the plight of the trapped workers.
“One of the things that [drove] me in this is that it could’ve been my kids on the other side… these workers, they’ve done nothing wrong… they just work really hard… they just get the job done,” he said.
The workers were reunited with their families and welcomed with garlands of flowers and fed aloo gobi, roti, dal, and rice on Tuesday morning. Professor Dix remembers the emotional scenes as relieved family members rushed to greet the workers.
“I did start crying… I felt this wasn’t anything to do with me, that I should step back for that moment. These are India’s children, and really hardworking kids that they’re bringing out,” he said on Sunrise.
We as humans do our best but Things in the supernatural realm give support, strangely perhaps, to the things we take on faith. https://t.co/v5bZUeaIXt
— Professor Arnold Dix (@DixArnold) November 28, 2023
After facing numerous setbacks with mechanical drills, the team resorted to delicately removing debris by hand, using a manual pulley system to clear 100 millimetres of rubble at a time. Professor Dix described the operation as ‘really hard, like surgery,’ and ‘a once-in-a-lifetime’ situation.
“We tried many things, but pretty much all of them failed… Eventually, we agreed on doing it by hand, really softly, 100 millimetres at a time. We knew if we rattled the ground anymore, it would all collapse and that’d be it, all over,” Professor Dix told Sunrise.
Despite the precarious situation and pressure from the worldwide press, Professor Dix said he and the team remained optimistic.
“I just had this feeling that we were gonna do it…[there] was something infectious in having that view, it kind of infected everyone,” said Professor Dix on Sunrise. “I promised to the families, 41 men are coming home safe, nobody’s getting hurt.”
“When[ever] I was asked [by the press] ‘when are [the workers] coming home’…I’d say, ‘They were dancing for Diwali when they went in, and they’ll be able to sing Christmas carols at Christmas.’”
The 41 workers, originating from all over India, survived for 17 days on oxygen, food and water provided through a small pipe. Authorities said they kept their spirits up, playing cricket and doing yoga to keep occupied.
Professor Arnold Dix said the cooperation and kindness shown throughout the operation has left him feeling heartened.
“We were all committed we were going to get them home,” he said. “Here is a disaster where everyone’s being nice, and we’re all working together. We put away all of our political differences – it d[idn’t] matter what God you’re into, or what country you’re from – we all help[ed] each other.”
“There’s lots of nice people in the world, don’t believe what you hear.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has praised Professor Arnold Dix’s contributions to the rescue efforts, speaking to the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
“Two nations are now in his debt, Australia and India, to this great Australian, his cool head and his big heart, and to his expertise in a very narrow area,” Prime Minister Albanese said.
“I doubt anyone in this chamber knew the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association was a thing, but it is. He is amazing, and I pay tribute to him on behalf of everyone in the parliament here today.”
A wonderful achievement by Indian authorities. Proud that Australian Professor Arnold Dix played a role on the ground. 🇦🇺🇮🇳 https://t.co/RI1oSnaUkK
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) November 28, 2023
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also praised the rescue efforts, speaking to the workers over the phone just hours after their evacuation.
“The success of the rescue operation of our labourer brothers in Uttarkashi is making everyone emotional. I want to say to the friends, who were trapped in the tunnel, that your courage and patience are inspiring everyone. I wish you all well and good health,” PM Modi posted from his X handle.
The Silkyara-Barkot tunnel is part of the Indian Government’s Char Dham project, an almost 900 km long highway connecting four key pilgrimage sites and costing roughly INR 12,000 crore.
Geologists and environmentalists including the ISRO have previously expressed concerns about the project’s potential to cause environmental disasters, due to the fragility of Himalayan terrain.
The Uttarakhand government have since formed a six-member expert committee to investigate the cause of the tunnel collapse. The National Highways Authority of India has also been asked to audit the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel, as well as 29 other tunnels under construction in India.