LUCKNOW, India: Rescuers searched for more than 170 people missing in the Indian Himalayas on Monday (Feb 8), including some trapped in a tunnel, after part of a glacier broke away, sending a torrent of water, rock and dust down a mountain valley.
Sunday's violent surge below Nanda Devi, India's second-highest peak, swept away the small Rishiganga hydro electric project and damaged a bigger one further down the Dhauliganga river being built by state firm NTPC.
Uttarakhand Director General of Police Ashok Kumar said late Monday that 26 bodies had been recovered, and 171 people were still unaccounted for.
Most of those missing were workers at the two power plants, with some trapped in a U-shaped tunnel filled with mud and rocks when the flooding hit.
"If this incident happened in the evening, after work hours, the situation wouldn't have been this bad as labourers and workers in and around the sites would have been at home," Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat told reporters.
Rescue squads were focused on drilling their way through a 2.5km-long tunnel at the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project site that NTPC was building 5km downstream where about 30 workers were believed trapped.
"We are trying to break open the tunnel, it's a long one, about 2.5km," said Ashok Kumar. He said rescuers had gone 150m into the tunnel but debris and slush were slowing progress.
READ: 'We didn't think we were going to make it': India glacier disaster survivor recounts escape
There had been no voice contact yet with anyone in the tunnel, another official said. Heavy equipment has been employed and a dog squad flown to the site to locate survivors.
Twelve people were rescued from one side of the tunnel on Sunday but another 34 were still trapped at the other end, the Indo Tibetan Border Police's Banudutt Nair, who is in charge of the rescue operation, told AFP.
About 400 soldiers have been deployed to the site in the remote mountains, state authorities said.
"We expect to carry on operations for the next 24 to 48 hours," said Satya Pradhan, the chief of the National Disaster Response Force.
Videos on social media showed water surging through a small dam site, washing away construction equipment and bringing down small bridges.
"Everything was swept away, people, cattle and trees," Sangram Singh Rawat, a former village council member of Raini, the site closest to the glacier, told local media.
"We were 300m inside the tunnel working. Suddenly there was whistling and shouting telling us to get out," said survivor Rajesh Kumar, 28.
"We started running out but the water gushed in. It was like scenes from a Hollywood movie. We thought we wouldn't make it," he told AFP.
It was not immediately clear what caused the glacier burst on a bright Sunday morning. Experts said it had snowed heavily last week in the Nanda Devi area and it was possible that some of the snow started melting and may have led to an avalanche.
Uttarakhand is prone to flash floods and landslides and the disaster prompted calls by environment groups for a review of power projects in the ecologically sensitive mountains. In June 2013, record monsoon rains there caused devastating floods that claimed close to 6,000 lives.
A team of scientists were flown over the site of the latest accident on Monday to find out what exactly happened.
"It's a very rare incident for a glacial burst to happen. Satellite and Google Earth images do not show a glacial lake near the region, but there's a possibility that there may be a water pocket in the region," said Mohd Farooq Azam, assistant professor, glaciology & hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology in Indore.
Water pockets are lakes inside the glaciers, which may have erupted leading to this event. Environmental groups have blamed construction activity in the mountains.
Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, said that there were clear government recommendations against the use of explosives for construction purposes. "There have been violations.