Navy, NDRF struggle in search ops for trapped miners

Navy divers, NDRF team struggle in search operation for trapped miners in Meghalaya

The five trapped miners, hailing from Assam and Tripura, were engaged to extract coal by a local resident, even as mining in the area is illegal

Navy divers in the flooded coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district. Credit: Indian Navy

The elite disaster response force belonging to the NDRF and divers of the Indian Navy are struggling to retrieve the miners who got trapped in a flooded coal mine in Meghalaya's East Jaintia Hills district on May 31.

Bodies of two out of the five miners have been retrieved so far since June 6, when Navy deep divers were called in to carry out search and rescue operations in the narrow shafts. The miners got trapped there after a dynamite explosion flooded it.

The first body was found on June 16 and the rescue team on Thursday retrieved the second body from the flooded mine. "The operation in such unmapped coal mines is extremely difficult and risky. But search operations for the three others are underway," said an official in the district.

The five miners, hailing from Assam and Tripura, were engaged to extract coal by a local resident, even as mining in the area is illegal.

The Navy deep divers were called in after NDRF personnel and the local disaster response workers failed to carry out the operation under water. A 12-member Naval team joined the operation on June 12.

"The current operation entails the Indian Navy divers to lower themselves and their specialised diving gear into an extremely narrow shaft to a depth of almost 400 feet and carry out diving upto further 100 feet, to search for trapped miners within a complicated inter-connecting labyrinth of  horizontal shafts, with barely enough space for a person to crawl. Diving operations are further challenged by poor underwater visibility, unmapped shaft construction hazards, flotsam and falling debris. Further, diving for prolonged durations in low temperatures (3 – 5 degree Celsius) pose significant medical risks such as hypothermia," said a statement issued by Navy on June 18.

"While the divers have specialised equipment such as the diver handheld navigation system for bottom-mapping of the mine-shaft, any technology can do little to ameliorate the raw, gut-wrenching adversity that such an operation entails," it said.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2014 had banned the hazardous rate hole coal mining in Meghalaya, but the practice has continued clandestinely, resulting in similar mishaps.

At least 17 labourers got trapped and killed in December 2018, while six more died in another mishap in January this year in the same district. The search operation then also took weeks. Most of the victims were from neighbouring Assam.

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