Indian rescuers have drilled two-thirds of the way through the debris towards 41 workers trapped in a collapsed road tunnel for 11 days, officials said Wednesday.
“I am very happy to share.. that 39 meters (128 feet) of drilling has been completed,” said Mahmood Ahmad, a road and highways ministry official involved in the operations.
Engineers were working to drive a steel pipe through at least 57 meters of earth and rock dividing the trapped men from freedom.
Excavators have been removing tons of earth, concrete and rubble from the under-construction tunnel in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand since November 12, when a portion of the tunnel collapsed.
Looking into the tunnel entrance on Wednesday, an AFP journalist could see sparks flying as workers welded metal tube sections together, with the site busy with excavators and heavy trucks.
“If there is no blockage, we hope there could be happy news late tonight or tomorrow,” Ahmad told reporters at the site.
“This is very happy news for us, that we are moving forward at a fast pace,” he added.
However, he warned that the remaining section yet to be drilled was critical.
Rescue efforts have been slow, complicated by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of crucial heavy-drilling machines.
The giant earth-boring machine last week ran into boulders, and drilling was put on hold for more than three days after a cracking sound in the roof.
Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Wednesday spoke of the “positive progress made in the last 24 hours”, without further details.
But a government statement also noted that “timelines provided are subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies”.
In case the route through the main tunnel entrance does not work, blasting and drilling have also begun from the far end of the unfinished tunnel, nearly half a kilometer (over a quarter of a mile) long. Preparations have also been made for a risky vertical shaft directly above.