At least 128 people were killed and many more were feared dead in north China after a huge reservoir of iron ore waste, illegally maintained and turned to sludge by heavy rain, buried a bustling marketplace in tons of suffocating mud.
Two thousand rescuers shoveled and hammered through the debris Wednesday searching for those buried under the three-story wave of mud and mining waste that inundated a valley in Shanxi province’s Xiangfen county Monday. State media put the official death toll at 128 people with 34 more injured.
Authorities have declined to provide a figure for the number of missing people, saying an investigation is ongoing.
But the Shanghai Morning Post reported that hundreds may have been buried in the mud. The paper said the landslide occurred in the morning just as business at a busy outdoor market was getting under way with shoppers haggling at roadside stalls for food and daily necessities.
When the dam broke, a wave of gray sludge inundated the valley washing out homes, cars and a building where more than 100 people from a local mining company were holding their weekly meeting, the paper said.
A relative of one of the company’s employees told the Shanghai paper that only three of those at the meeting were believed to have survived.
Waiting for news of loved ones
More than a hundred people kept vigil behind a security cordon, waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones, state media reported but local officials acknowledged that the chances of finding any more survivors was slim.
“There were survivors on the first day and on the second day, but from day three, it’s very likely that anyone we find in the future will be dead already,” said a woman surnamed Dong who heads the propaganda department of Xiangfen county.
Dong told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that more than 2,000 police, firefighters and villagers were mobilized in the search, but conditions were difficult.
“There is mud everywhere,” said Dong, who was speaking from the site where excavators and front loaders were lifting earth and debris. “It is very hard for the machines to drive through the mud.”
Also hampering rescue efforts were the rough terrain, poor telecommunications and heavy rainfall, which finally let up on Wednesday, Dong said. Like many Chinese officials, she refused to give her full name.
The accident underscores two major public safety concerns in China: the failure to enforce protective measures in the country’s notoriously deadly mines, and the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other aging infrastructure.
Heavy rains breach wall of dump
A preliminary investigation showed that the landslide was caused by the collapse of an abandoned dump which had been turned into a holding pond for mining waste by the illegally run Tashan Mine, said Wang Dexue, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety.
“It is an illegal company that was using the abandoned dump to get rid of its production waste,” Wang said in an interview broadcast on state television.
Heavy rains caused the already overloaded dump to breach its retaining wall, Wang said.
“It was terrible,” Wei Guanghui, a migrant worker who witnessed the disaster, told the official Xinhua News Agency. “The mud-rock flow looked about seven meters (23 feet) high. It roared down the valley and washed away the market and the houses in a few minutes.”
Nine people suspected of being responsible for the incident, including the owner of the Tashan mine, were detained. Xinhua said several officials, including the local head of the work safety administration, the village Party secretary and village chief have already been fired for negligence.