By Dipankar Roy
KSAN (EAST JAINTIA HILLS): The three helmets lay in a neat row like trophies won.
For some time in the morning of December 13, they protected miners going down in one of the numerous — figure varies between 60 and 90 — rat-hole coal mines which dot the vast expanse of the coalfield here in East Jaintia Hills district.
Sometime on that fateful Thursday, the three helmets and the miners they protected separated.
Some personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), who went down into the mine in the afternoon the day after, found the three helmets floating on the water in the shaft and brought those up.
On Friday, Day 15 of the operations to rescue the 15 miners trapped in the flooded mine since December 13, the three helmets were all that the rescuers had to show for their success.
There is no trace of the miners.
But that may still change.
On Friday, after 16 days of the mishap, almost like out of thin air, more men and more powerful equipment, mainly submersible pumps, began moving here.
However, the question that hung heavy here was: Will it be too many, too late?
The NDRF and the State Disaster Response Force had to contend with just two 25HP submersible pumps to drain out the water from the mine which was blocking the divers from carrying out the search for the trapped miners; the pumping out was finally called off on December 24 as realisation dawned that it was a losing battle being fought with just the two pumps.
Yet, an official of the State Water Resources Department said here around 23 lakh litres of water were pumped out from the mine during these days but the water level has remained almost unchanged as water from the Lytein river and several other mines keeps coming in.
Officials of the Kirloskar Brothers Limited, a reputed pump manufacturing company, visited the site on Thursday to take stock and assess the requirement.
On Friday, two senior officials of Coal India Limited (CIL) arrived here.
According to Binay Dayal, Director Technical (Engineering Services), and JK Borah, GM, North Eastern Coalfields, a unit of the CIL, pumps were on their way from the company’s various establishments across the country, the farthest being Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh.
Borah said the state government had requested the CIL for help on December 26 for pumps, survey work and pipelines, besides manpower.
By afternoon, a contingent of Odisha Fire Services with high-power pumps, started for the mine from Guwahati after being earlier airlifted by an Indian Air Force C-130J Super Hercules aircraft from Bhubaneswar.
As the day wore on, there were reports that a group of Indian Navy divers were also being brought by air from Vishakhapatnam to join the rescue operations on Saturday morning.
Amid the buzz of the help coming their way, NDRF personnel on Friday continued with their drill of going down into the mine to “look around.”
“We are rescuers, we can’t lose hope,” said Santosh Kumar, assistant commandant of 1st Battalion of NDRF.
Some days ago, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, when asked about compensation for the trapped miners, had said he would cross the bridge when he came to it. Besides, he said, “miracles do happen”.
If indeed they do, then sooner or later, three miners will don the three helmets again.
TOO MANY, TOO LATE?
Who’s bringing what
Coal India Limited: Eight 100 HP submersible pumps with pumping capacity of 500 gallons per minute; surveyors and engineers
Status: Pumps on the way, may take about four days to reach site
Kirloskar Brothers Limited: 10 high-power pumps
Odisha Fire Services: 21-member team with 20 high-power pumps; each pump is capable of flushing out 1,600 litre water per minute; other high-tech equipment and gadgets
Indian Navy: 15-member diving team from Visakhapatnam; team carrying special diving equipment including a re-compression chamber and remotely-operated vehicles capable of searching underwater
Status: Expected to arrive on Saturday; initial assessment to determine an effective response undertaken on Friday.