Indian rescuers were on the verge Tuesday of bringing out 41 men trapped for 17 days behind tonnes of earth inside a Himalayan road tunnel after a marathon engineering operation to free them.
Ambulances moved towards the mouth of the tunnel entrance, preparing to receive the men who have been trapped since a portion of the under-construction tunnel in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand collapsed on November 12.
Rescue teams were seen in photos on social media smiling and flashing victory signs, while bundles of orange marigold garlands were carried into the tunnel ready in welcome.
"The work of laying pipes in the tunnel to take out the workers has been completed," chief minister of Uttarakhand state Pushkar Singh Dhami said, adding they would be brought out of the tunnel "soon".
Syed Ata Hasnain, a senior rescue official and retired general, told reporters a final section of earth still remained to be cleared, but said there "should be a breakthrough anytime", adding that the "sounds of digging" could be heard by the trapped workers.
Stretchers have been specially fitted with wheels to pull the exhausted men out through 57 metres (187 feet) of steel pipe. Rescue officials warning that once the first worker is brought out, it could still take several hours for all to escape.
- 'Thankful to God' -
As night fell and the waiting continued for the first man to emerge out of the tunnel, relatives outside began celebrating.
"We are thankful to God and the rescuers who worked hard to save them," Naiyer Ahmad told AFP, whose younger brother Sabah Ahmad is among the trapped workers, and who has been camping at the site for over two weeks.
Sudhansu Shah, who has also been camping out since shortly after the November 12 tunnel collapse waiting for his younger brother Sonu Shah, said relatives were relieved.
"We are really hopeful and happy," he said.
Dhami praised the "prayers of tens of millions of countrymen and the tireless work of all the rescue teams engaged in the rescue operation".
The health of the workers was "fine", but a team of medics in a field hospital were ready on site as soon as they were brought out, he added.
Previous hopes of reaching the men were dashed by falling debris and the breakdown of multiple drilling machines, and the government has warned multiple times of the "challenging Himalayan terrain".
- 'Effort and sacrifice' -
After repeated setbacks in the operation, military engineers and skilled miners dug the final section by hand using a so-called "rat-hole" technique, a three-person team working at the rock face inside a metal pipe, just wide enough for someone to squeeze through.
Indian billionaire Anand Mahindra paid tribute to the men at the rockface who squeezed into the narrow pipe to clear the rocks by hand.
"After all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it's the humble 'rathole miners' who make the vital breakthrough," Mahindra said on X, formerly Twitter.
"It's a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort and sacrifice."
Last week, engineers working to drive a metal pipe horizontally through the 57 metres of rock and concrete ran into metal girders and construction vehicles buried in the rubble, snapping a giant earth-boring machine.
A separate vertical shaft was also started from the forested hill above the tunnel, a risky route in an area that has already suffered a collapse.
Digging also took place from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be around 480 metres.
The workers were seen alive for the first time last week, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity were delivered.
The workers had plenty of space in the tunnel, with the area inside 8.5 metres high and stretching about two kilometres in length.
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who has been advising the rescue, told reporters the men were in good spirits, and that he had heard they had been "playing cricket".