A landslide that unleashed a three-story wave of mud and iron ore waste at an illegal mining operation has killed at least 151 people and authorities fear the death toll could climb by hundreds more, state media said Thursday.
In a matter of minutes, the mud and waste on Monday inundated an entire village of and an outdoor market with hundreds of customers in Shanxi province's Xiangfen county, the China Daily newspaper reported, citing witnesses.
State media put the official death toll at 151 people.
Authorities have declined to state a figure on the number of missing, saying an investigation is continuing. But news reports said hundreds may be buried in the mud.
"There's almost no hope of their survival ... they have been buried for three days under two meters (6 1/2 feet) of slush," Wang Jun, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said in the China Daily report.
Wang said there could be several hundred people buried under the sludge, according to the report.
But Huang Yi, a spokesman of the administration, later told The Associated Press that Wang had not commented on the possible number of people buried.
Calculating that number is made particularly difficult because most of the mine workers were migrants from elsewhere in Shanxi, or from Chongqing and central Hubei province.
One of the worst-hit areas was Yunhe, the village where the market was located. Yunhe sits in a valley at the foot of Tashan, the hill on which the iron ore mine was operating.
Yunhe's 1,300 residents were mainly farmers of wheat, corn and other crops, but also supplemented their wages by providing transport to the nearby mines, according to a local government Web site's official description of the place.
Most of the patrons of the outdoor market were migrant workers from the mine and residents of neighboring villages, with many buying food to prepare for the upcoming mid-autumn festival holiday, state media reported.
All that was left after the mudslide were a handful of two-story buildings that remained standing on the fringe of the sludge, which spanned an area the size of four football fields.
More than 2,000 police, firefighters and villagers were mobilized in the search for the missing, while police sealed off the village with checkpoints on all roads leading to it, blocking access to unauthorized vehicles.
Officers were still visiting various households in the area and interviewing residents for a final tally on the number of people missing or buried, state news broadcaster CCTV said in its midday bulletin.
A deadly history
A preliminary investigation showed the landslide was triggered by heavy rains that brought down a retaining wall at a waste dump operated by an illegal mine, said Wang Dexue, deputy head of the State Administration of Work Safety.
The wall's collapse sent a wave of mud and iron waste over the town, located just below the waste site. Gray sludge also flooded the valley, washing out homes, cars, and buildings, including one where more than 100 people from a local mining company were holding a weekly meeting, the Shanghai Morning Post said.
The disaster 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.
There are more than 9,000 mine waste dumps throughout China, and more than half of them operate without work safety permits, the CCTV report said.