On Sunday, Basant Bahadur and 11 others were trampled for hours in a tunnel in northern India, hanging from iron bars in the roof, while some sat on a mechanical excavator over ice-cold water, waiting for help to arrive.
What the 12 did not know at the time was that a piece of a Himalayan glacier was suspected of cutting off in a river and triggering a huge flood. It sent a stream of water and garbage their way.
It blocked two tunnels connected to the Tovan Vishnugad hydropower project in the state of Uttarakhand. Basant Bahadur and his group withdrew from the smaller tunnel. Emergency teams are now focused on rescuing 35 people believed to be trampled in the longer, which is 8.3 km (5.1 miles) long.
Here, the survivors tell the BBC what happened in the terrifying hours trampled in complete darkness.
‘It was the hardest seven hours of my life’
Basant Bahadur and several others were working about 300 meters inside the 3.8 km long tunnel when the flood hit.
At first, they thought a gas cylinder had exploded, leading to a larger explosion that caused the tunnel to hollow. They thought that if they tried to get out of the tunnel, they could risk becoming electric – they could see thick smoke rising. Their ears were numb from the loud noises.
“Suddenly a big wave of water came rushing towards us in the dark tunnel. We were petrified,” Bahadur told the BBC. The workers ran towards a JCB (a mechanical excavator) and climbed up to stay over the water that had flowed in.
“It was the hardest seven hours of my life. But we did not lose hope. We kept encouraging ourselves.”
Fortunately, Bahadur had his cell phone with him.
The mobile network in the blocked tunnel was uneven. Finally, they managed to get in touch with emergency teams who pulled them out using ropes.
‘The water sprang out of the tunnel’
Among those rescued was geologist Srinivas Reddy. He worked in the tunnel, about 350 m inside.
A worker came running into the tunnel and shouted for everyone to get out because the water in the nearby river is rising continuously. But Mr Reddy and the workers did not have enough time to escape.
“The water flowed into the tunnel right in front of us. We grabbed iron bars installed in the tunnel ceiling, pulled ourselves up and waited for the water level to drop.”
#WATCH: Indo-Tibetan border police staff rescued people trampled in a tunnel in Chamoli on 7 February.
Rescue operation is underway at another tunnel, where about 35 people are being towed according to DGP Uttarakhand.
(Video source: ITBP) pic.twitter.com/x4EexJkjL7
– ANI (@ANI) February 9, 2021
They survived by hanging on iron bars. After a while, when they saw that the water level had stopped rising, they headed towards the entrance.
They moved in complete darkness because the stream of dirt and water had cut off the power supply to the tunnel. Some of the trped workers felt breathless.
“We were in cold water. Our feet were freezing. Water and dirt had filled our boots that were weighing us down. Our feet were starting to swell,” Mr Reddy told the BBC.
To keep the mood high, Mr. Reddy began to sing as they waited in the dark.
“I started singing and started reciting poetry to keep everyone encouraged. Every now and then we all did a few exercises,” he said. “I wanted everyone to stay active and attentive so we could get out of the tunnel.”
The workers continued to try to contact rescue teams outside the tunnel, but could not get a cell phone signal. Finally, they managed to get a call and were pulled to safety.
‘The water hit us – the current went out’
Virender Kumar Gautam was one of the last to be rescued.
A video of him raising his hands in the air in triumph, exclaiming with joy after being pulled out by rescue workers has gone viral.
He was in the tunnel when the water came. “As soon as the water hit us, the current went out. In the distance we could hear loud noises.”
Bumped into the darkness, the tunnel looked scary as the water level rose.
Sir. Gautam, though the perhs a cloud burst had caused the flash flood. For 15 minutes, the water level kept rising. Then it stopped.
“When the water flow started to slow down, we knew the worst was over. I asked all my colleagues to be patient and that we would get out of the tunnel,” he told the BBC.
They all stuck to iron bars on the side of the tunnel and slowly made their way to the entrance. The workers tried to get in touch with rescue teams, but like the others, they struggled to get mobile connection.
However, they continued to try, and after a long wait, they were able to make contact.