After being shuttled to freedom through a narrow escape shaft on Friday, Vietnam’s trapped tunnel workers recall how they survived four days of near-drowning and suffocation.
Pham Viet Nam, 41, the oldest of the 12 trapped workers, was the first to be brought out of the collapsed tunnel. Photo: Doc Lap
“I wept when I woke to see the sun shining through the window of my hospital room,” said Dang Thi Hong Ngoc, the sole woman who spent 82-hours trapped in a collapsed tunnel in Lam Dong Province.
After a harrowing ordeal, Ngoc and 11 other workers were rescued on Friday afternoon.
As she spoke from her hospital bed, the 26-year-old woman's eyes still shone with shock and exhaustion.
Ngoc told her husband she wants to return to their hometown in the north-central province of Nghe An to see their five-year-old son as soon as she is discharged.
Her husband, Pham Viet Bac, was among the 32 workers who were digging a tunnel for the Da Dang-Da Chomo hydropower when the accident occurred early on Tuesday during a heavy storm.
At 7:15 am, a portion of the tunnel some 500 meters from its entrance suddenly collapsed as the workers were pouring concrete over the tunnel's ceiling.
Bac and 19 other workers escaped unscathed, but Ngoc and 11 of her male co-workers were not that lucky.
“I heard some rocks fall a few dozen meters behind me while I was drilling," recalled Truong Tuan Viet. "Then, a huge shower of rocks and concrete fell down around me and we rushed toward the entrance.”
“But when we got about 20 meters, the whole tunnel went dark,” Nguyen Van Quang continued. “Though my head was bleeding after being struck by a falling rock, I knew that I was stuck .”
Pham Viet Nam recalls what happened to him and his colleagues inside the tunnel. All 12 workers are in stable condition at the Lam Dong Province General Hospital. Photo: Doc Lap
“All of us began to panic,” recalled Pham Viet Nam, 41, the oldest of the trapped workers.
“But we finally managed to calm down around 12 hours later when a tube broke through the rubble and began piping in oxygen. We understood that we would be rescued,” said Nam.
“I asked my colleagues to climb onto an excavator to avoid the rising water,” he said.
The workers said that their cell phone flashlights illuminated the watery cavern while they took turns swimming across ten meters of water to the tube every four hours so they could communicate with the rescuers who dropped porridge, milk, and ginger tea down into their helmets.
The workers said they also took turns to lying on a scaffold to rest.
It was only large enough to fit seven people.
“Food continued to be delivered day after day. But no one could tell us when we would be brought out,” said Hoang Van Son.
“We were always told through the tube: ‘Keep calm, you will be rescued soon.’ But the water around us kept rising,” Son said.
“The water continued to rise after flowing in through the tunnel roof more and more heavily. It reached our chests, and then our necks when we climbed down from the excavator to swim towards the pipe,” he continued.
“Some of us cried, some others whimpered; the rest stayed silent. But all of us were thinking about death,” said Son.
Standing outside the tunnel to wait for news, Nguyen Van Dinh, whose younger brother Nguyen Van Huong was still trapped, told Thanh Nien, “Seeing the rescue team working through heavy rains for the fourth consecutive day, I'm extremely nervous.”
“The weather is getting worse and worse; I'd guess my brother only has a 20 percent chance of surviving,” said Dinh.
Nam, the oldest trapped worker, said some hope returned on Friday noon after the water began to recede. He was later told, through the pipe, that sappers had successfully drilled through to the rear of the tunnel to pump the water out.
“That afternoon, we didn’t take food because we were afraid of getting a diarrhea,” Nam said, “It would be very dangerous if you got such an illness inside that tunnel.”
Nam decided to swim through the water again to pick up food because everyone had grown so hungry.
“Suddenly I saw the light and a large hole and heard somebody say: ‘Did the water run out? Keep calm! We will bring all of you out,’” Nam recalled.
“Then they asked us to try to protect Ngoc, the sole woman and my sister-in-law,” Nam said. “They feared that we would all rush out of the tunnel at the same time and cause it to collapse.”
“Alive! The escape shaft is finished,” I cried, only to see everyone burst into tears of joy.
Rescued workers receive first aid at the site before being taken to the Lam Dong Province General Hospital. Photo: Doc Lap
All 12 workers looked weak, but were conscious when they were carried out of the tunnel at 4:30 pm on Friday. Some were brought out on stretchers or on rescuers’ backs.
Others walked out on their own.
Rescue workers, relatives and friends broke into ecstatic cheers when they began to emerge.
The workers said they were very surprised to see hundreds of rescue workers, lots of of excavation equipment and machines at the entrance the tunnel.
“We didn’t think that the rescue work was being done on such a large scale,” said Nguyen Anh Tuan.
More than 750 people, including soldiers, firefighters and police officers, were mobilized to the site.
They dug two underground passageways, a main one and a standby one, from both sides of the collapsed tunnel in an effort to reach the trapped workers. Sappers eventually found a gap in the debris, which they used to pull the workers free.
All 12 workers are in stable condition at Lam Dong General Hospital, doctors said on Saturday morning.
"Our family has been brought back to life," said Pham Viet Diem, father of Nam and father-in-law of Dang Thi Hong Ngoc, told Vietnam Television on Friday night.
"Nothing could be more emotional than this. Now we can sleep and eat,” said Diem.
“I missed my parents most when I was trapped in the tunnel,” said Pham Viet Lanh, 20, Diem's relative, “None of us could sleep during those four days. We were very cold.”
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung wrote a letter of commendation to the rescue workers on Friday from Bangkok, where he was attending the 5th Greater Mekong Subregion Summit.
Nguyen Xuan Tien, Chief of Lam Dong Province’s Communist Party Unit, said: “We hope such an incident won't ever happen again.”
An initial investigation indicates that the poor geological integrity of the area and heavy rains may have caused the cave-in.
Officials said rain and winds hampered the rescue efforts, as well as the narrowness of the tunnel and the rising water inside.
The Da Dang-Da Chomo Hydropower plant, one of dozens planned or under construction in energy-hungry Vietnam, is expected to produce about 110 million kWh annually.
Backed by Long Hoi Electricity Construction and Investment JSC, the plant was estimated to cost VND475 billion (US$22 million) to build.
Song Da 10 JSC and Song Da 505 JSC are the contractors of the plant's tunnel.
Thanh Nien News
With additional translation from Vietnamese stories on Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.