As dusk fell on Sunday, a team of Indian Navy divers was still inside the approximately 350 feet-deep shaft of the flooded rat-hole coal mine in Meghalaya, where 15 miners remain trapped since December 13.
Santosh Kumar Singh of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said that if the divers manage to get to the bottom of the pit and manage to discern how many lateral rat-holes there are, it will be a major breakthrough.
“After the initial two days, we figured out that the water level was not receding and we could not go beyond 30 feet of the 70 feet -deep water. So if Navy divers get details of the bottom of the pit and the number of rat holes, that will be very useful for further operations,”Santosh said.
It turns out that the NDRF teams who have been on the spot since December 14, miscalculated the depth of water in the main pit.
“The Navy divers went up to around twice the depth our divers were managing (30 feet) and still they could not get to the bottom of the pit,” he said.
After 16 days of procrastination and tardiness by the administration of Meghalaya, an 18-member team of the Indian Navy could finally commence its rescue operation at 1 pm on Sunday, when their equipment finally arrived.
The remote mine is a 1-1/2 hour drive and then a half-hour hike from the district headquarters of the East Jaintia Hills district. Only four-wheel-drive SUVs can navigate the three streams and the steep uphill dirt road that the last, two-kilometer stretch comprises of.
Before donning his diving suit, a navy diver told HT that his 18-member navy team has come equipped with diving sets, remotely-operated vehicles, re-compression chambers and other essential rescue gear.
“In these conditions, we can dive up to 45 meters (146.7 feet) but it will be dangerous for us to get into the rat holes at the bottom , because sharp edges can damage diving suits and air tubes and endanger the diver,” he said.
As a first step, an NDRD rubber boat was lowered into the shaft to serve as a platform for the diving team.
The rescue team from the Odisha Fire and Emergency Services could not start pumping out the water from the shaft. According to Odisha fire service chief Sukanta Sethi, the pumps can’t be started before divers go in because the pumps could fill the pit with smoke.
There were some logistical issues too.
Tapan Kumar Mohanty, station officer, Odisha fire services said they have requested a carriage from the district administration on Saturday to help lower their pump inside the pit about 21 feet above the water, since it is not submersible. An official has said it will be arranged soon.
Ace diver Jaswant Singh Gill who brings experience in rescuing miners from flooded pits and has been contributing suggestions to the rescue teams, said that pumping out the water from the flooded mine is the foremost requirement.
Meanwhile, locals were reluctant to talk about coal mining. The senior district official said on condition of anonymity, that as much as 80 percent of the districts population is directly or indirectly connected to the activity, which was banned by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014.
On the road from the district headquarters to the rat-hole mines, the gentle slopes of the Jaintia Hills are dotted with heaps of coal and labourers loading it onto trucks.
“We don’t work on coal mines. It is the ‘outsiders’ who come and work. They do all these dangerous things,” said a local who had come to observe the rescue operation.