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Atal Tunnel: How winter sports athletes saved lives of construction workers during avalanches

At 0800 hours on February 24, 2018, the avalanche rescue workforce of the Strabag-Afcons Joint Venture (SAJV)—the corporate that was establishing the Atal Tunnel, one of the world’s longest high-altitude highway tunnels—launched an alert message. The tunnel runs 9.02km from Solang Valley close to Manali to Sissu in Lahaul, slicing throughout a mountain to the west of the Rohtang Pass.

The message mentioned that nobody ought to transfer out of the under-construction tunnel from the Lahaul NP, or north portal, the time period for the tunnel mouth that opens at Sissu.

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A heavy avalanche was anticipated. The guard stationed at NP was instructed to not let anybody step out. After talking to the guard, the workforce moved in direction of the South Portal (SP) the tunnel mouth close to Manali.

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Unaware of the alert, three jawans from the engineering wing of 70 Road construction firm of Border Road Organisation (BRO), have been travelling down in direction of Sissu from Keylong, 30km to the north. It was the primary day of a month-long depart for them. An military automobile dropped them off close to the NP at 1015 hours. They have been to cross the tunnel on foot to achieve Manali.

Two of the jawans entered the tunnel. The third, Naik Satnam Singh, a couple of steps behind them, was metres away from the mouth when the avalanche struck. The two watched in horror as Satnam vanished below a mountain of white.

When the message concerning the incident reached the rescue workforce, they have been busy clearing an alternate route for close to on the Manali-Leh freeway close to SP, in case the highway in direction of the tunnel received snowed in. They dropped every little thing and rushed in direction of the tunnel. Half an hour after Satnam was buried by the avalanche, the rescue operation started.

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With the assistance of avalanche rods—lengthy, collapsible carbon sticks—the seven-member workforce began probing the realm on the left facet of the highway, the place the opposite jawans final noticed Satnam. Thirty minutes handed. No luck.

The rescue workforce started probing the complete space, level to level, sweeping in pre-determined arcs from the left of the snow-drowned freeway to the fitting. They have been working out of time. It had been an hour since Satnam disappeared. Unless there was a big air pocked round him, he can be working out of oxygen.

At 1130 hours, Lal Chand, a national-level skier and at 36, the youngest of the rescuers, struck one thing to the far proper of the highway.

“Here!” He shouted out. The different rescuers scrambled and started digging furiously. Five minutes later, Chuni Lal Thakur, an Olympic skier, might see Satnam’s head.

“He’s alive, he’s breathing,” he mentioned.

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“Jai ho maharaj!” mentioned one other member of the workforce. The digging continued with urgency. Fifteen minutes later, having dug greater than six toes into the snow, that they had the barely-conscious jawan out and into an ambulance.

“It was my second birth,” mentioned Satnam, now 35 and posted at Manali because the incident. “When I received trapped below the snow, within the very first minute I used to be capable of transfer round one or one-and-a-half toes, however then I received buried deep. I used to be fully caught and couldn’t transfer an inch. After five-six minutes of struggling, I misplaced all hope and thought my sport was over. After that I don’t keep in mind something until I awakened within the ambulance.

“Whenever I cross the point at NP where I was rescued, I pay my homage,” he mentioned over the cellphone. “Had the rescue team didn’t not shown their alertness and quickness, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

The horse-shoe formed Atal Tunnel, which was inaugurated on October 3, is located in an especially avalanche-prone space, 3,000 metres above sea-level. On a mean, 200 avalanches hit the stretch yearly.

For the ten years that it took for the tunnel to be constructed, the seven members of the rescue workforce, all of them winter sports athletes, together with an Olympian, acted because the lifeline for the construction workers.

“These are moments that define your life,” mentioned Chuni Lal, referring to Satnam’s rescue, “a moment of great pride.”

Chuni Lal, who headed the workforce from 2010 until 2019, was one of the primary from the villages close to Manali to make it massive in snowboarding. He competed within the 1992 Winter Olympics, two Winter Asian Games, and was a coach for the Indian ski workforce for the 2007 Asian Games. Both his son and his daughter are nationwide skiers. Mountain rescue is a component of life for him.

“During my skiing days, and even later as a coach, there were many occasions when we skiers had to rescue stranded tourists near Rohtang,” he mentioned.

Three of the seven rescuers, together with Chuni Lal, come from Palchan, a stunningly picturesque village with a inhabitants of round 2,000, nestled among the many snow-covered mountains of the Pir Panjal vary.

The rescue workforce contains Chuni Lal Thakur (49), Kewal Ram (39), Raj Kumar Thakur (43), Duni Chand (38), Joginder Paul (38), Gautam Beas (36) and Lal Chand (36). The members hail from a cluster of 9 villages—Palchan, Ruwar, Kothi, Kulang, Solang, Burwa, Majhach, Shanag and Goshal —positioned on the rugged terrain between Manali and Rohtang.

Over the years, the realm has developed into the nation’s ski nursery, producing over 50 internationals, together with 5 winter Olympians—4 in snowboarding and one, Shiva Keshavan, in luge.

Since 1992, when Chuni Lal and Nanak Chand from Palchan competed within the Winter Olympics for the primary time, there was an Olympian from these villages in every version besides the 1994 Games.

Despite their experience on the mountain and their deep data of the terrain, the rescue workforce was put via a sequence of workshops quickly after the workforce was shaped on November 1, 2010. They learnt every little thing from easy methods to “read” mountains and predict avalanches, to easy methods to put an individual on a stretcher with out aggravating the neck or the backbone.

“During our training, when we used to sit in the car, one of our instructors told us that the driver in the rescue vehicle keeps his eye on the road,” mentioned Gautam, 36, a skilled mountaineer. “The rest of us are supposed to watch the slopes throughout, looking at angles, snow, observing wind speed…now when I am in a car, I scan automatically.”

With 45 avalanche susceptible spots alongside the tunnel’s route, finishing up construction work via the 12 months was a serious problem.

January to May are the avalanche months—between November 2018 and March 2019, there have been 288 avalanches within the space.

In their decade at work, the rescue workforce was concerned in six main operations and responded to not less than 500 calls, however their major, and most important perform, was to attempt to guarantee there have been no incidents in any respect. Every day for 10 years, it was their responsibility to forecast avalanches and body secure timings for the work.

“Every day, we used to recce the snow clad mountains, trekking to avalanche formation zones and carrying out snow testing for forecast,” mentioned Lal Chand. “The workforce at the construction site had to carry avalanche beacons every time and the rescue team had detectors, so, in case anyone got buried inside the avalanche, that person could be tracked.”

Chuni Lal recollects a day in April in 2016 when an Army automobile received buried in an avalanche and the workforce needed to rescue six military personnel.

“There was heavy snowfall, and the main threat while carrying out the rescue operation was the risk of another avalanche,” he mentioned.

As the workforce turned higher recognized within the space for his or her work, they have been typically referred to as in at different rescue operations as nicely.

In September 2018, when over 300 of vacationers have been stranded for days as a consequence of heavy snowfall close to the Kunzum Pass at 4551m, 122km from Manali and Baralacha Pass at 4890m, 191km from Manali. The Indian Air Force (IAF) performed a five-day rescue, airlifting the vacationers—all besides 5 individuals, who have been caught inside their automobile in a spot the place the IAF’s rescue choppers couldn’t attain.

Instead, the IAF picked up the avalanche rescue workforce from Manali and airdropped them on the Baralacha Pass, from the place they skied to the situation and introduced again the stranded group, which included a seven-year-old baby.

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“After being part of the rescue team of the tunnel, we were sought after rescuers,” mentioned Joginder Paul, a former mountaineering teacher who was one of the rescuers in that operation. Paul is well-known within the space for volunteering for rescue operations. His drive to assist was born out of a tragedy. In 2004, when he was an teacher on the Atal Bihari Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali, the deputy director of the institute requested him to hitch him on a rescue mission.

A automobile had fallen right into a deep gorge; what Paul didn’t know was that every one three occupants within the automobile—a newlywed couple and their driver—have been lifeless.

“When we trekked inside the gorge and reached the body, I realised they were dead,” Paul mentioned. “There were lots of injuries; I had never seen a body in that condition. For a moment, I completely blanked out. Ever since then, I have been volunteering for rescues.”

Like Paul, Raj Kumar, 43, additionally compulsively volunteers for rescue work after experiencing nice loss. He was simply three days previous when he misplaced his mom, and was in his late teenagers, making a reputation as a junior skier, when he misplaced his father. It necessitated a scramble for survival, and for years, Raj did odd jobs to make ends meet—typically he was a shepherd, typically a porter, typically a vacationer photographer at Rohtang.

“I have seen the worst in my life,” he mentioned. “I feel easily the pain of losing loved ones. I have never seen my mother, so by helping someone I remember her presence. As part of the rescue team, we remained at the forefront of danger for the entire duration of the construction.”

Though the avalanche workforce loved nice success of their work, there’s one tragedy that also haunts them—March 22, 2011, was the primary and final incident that induced a casualty within the 10 years of the construction of the tunnel.

On that day too, forecasting a heavy avalanche, the rescue workforce had flashed a message to cease work. But two unfortunate construction workers—an area from Kullu and one from Odisha—missed the warning and continued shifting of their automobile in direction of Manali earlier than they have been struck by the avalanche. Though the rescue workforce was on the spot in quarter-hour and each workers have been pulled out in one other ten minutes, neither survived.

“Their death still haunts us. Though it’s been more than nine years, the entire episode is fresh in our memories,” mentioned Chuni Lal.

The Olympian fell out with the corporate final 12 months over a pay dispute and filed a case in opposition to them with the Central Government Industrial Tribunal cum Labour Court in Chandigarh.

Now, because the tunnel has opened to visitors, the rescue workforce has been disbanded—solely two of the seven proceed to work as rescuers for the corporate.

“Though our stint here has ended, the things we have learned about forecasting avalanches and rescue will always be a great use for us to help the people in need,” mentioned Lal Chand.

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