BEIJING — At least 91 people remained missing Monday after a sea of red mud buried 33 buildings in China.
According to Chinese state media, the landslide swamped 454,000 square yards of three industrial parks in the southern city of Shenzhen on Sunday, covering a number of low-rise buildings, factories and homes. A section of gas pipeline also exploded.
A social media account belonging to the Ministry of Land and Resources blamed the landslide on the dumping of construction waste and mud at a nearby site. It said the steep, man-made mountain of dirt, cement chunks and other construction waste that had been piled up against a 330-foot-high hill over the past two years.
Heavy rains in the region had saturated the soil, making it increasingly unstable and ultimately causing it to collapse with massive force.
"The pile was too big, the pile was too steep, leading to instability and collapse," the ministry said, adding that the original, natural hill remained intact.
"This wasn't a natural disaster, this was man-made"
Calls to the Guangming district government offices and local hospitals went unanswered, but local authorities announced that 59 men and 32 women were believed to be missing under the mud — which was up to 20 feet deep in some areas.
China’s Xinhua news agency reported that 14 people had been rescued from the disaster area and that 900 others had been evacuated Sunday.
Firefighters from across the province were assisting with the search. Nearly 3,000 people were involved, aided by 151 cranes, backhoes and other construction equipment, along with rescue dogs and specialized life-detecting equipment.
A local doctor surnamed Li, who rushed to the disaster site to help survivors after the first landslide brought a wall of mud flying towards factories and homes, shared cellphone video with NBC News showing a multi-story building suddenly collapsing.
“I was on my way to the disaster site and saw a second landslide,” Li said. “As you see in the video, people could escape when the second landslide happened but when the first happened, people didn’t have a chance.”
According to Li, many of his patients have suffered extensive fractures after they choose to jump out of buildings to escape from the mud.
Local resident Yi Jimin refuted arguments that the landslide was an act of nature.
"Heavy rains and a collapse of a mountain are natural disasters, but this wasn't a natural disaster, this was man-made," Yi told The Associated Press.
Shenzhen is a major manufacturing center in Guangdong province across the border from Hong Kong. It makes products used around the world ranging from cellphones to cars.
The landslide is the fourth major disaster to strike China this year following a deadly New Year's Day stampede in Shanghai, the capsizing of a cruise ship in the Yangtze River and a massive explosion at a chemicals warehouse in Tianjian on the coast near Beijing.
Human error has been suspected or confirmed in all three previous disasters, pointing to an often callous attitude toward safety in China despite the threat of harsh penalties.
Three decades of headlong economic growth have been catching up with China in terms of safety and damage to the environment.