The death toll after a torrent of sludge, mud and mining waste ploughed into buildings in northern China has risen to at least 34 people, with hundreds more feared trapped in the rubble, state media reported today.
The landslide in Shanxi province yesterday also injured 35 people – four seriously, Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the local rescue headquarters.
Xinhua said the number of people trapped under the mud was unknown, but the People’s Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said on its website that the missing could number in the hundreds.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said in a statement that the death toll could exceed 500 people. It did not attribute the figure to a source.
The landslide at Tashan, a hill in Xiangfen county, knocked down a mine warehouse, trapping an unknown number of people inside, Xinhua said. A three-story office building, a market and some houses were also destroyed, the report said.
A preliminary investigation showed that the landslide was caused by the collapse of a dam used as a retaining wall to enclose tailings from an iron 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,” Mr Wang said in an interview on state broadcaster CCTV’s midday news show.
“The amount stored far exceeded the capacity of the space. In addition, there was a bit of rain and the collapse took place as a result,” he said.
Xinhua said several local officials had been sacked for negligence. The owner of the Tashan Mine was detained, it said.
Rescuers said it was difficult to identify the victims as most of the mine workers were migrants from elsewhere in Shanxi, Chongqing and central Hubei province, the report said.
More than 1,100 police, firefighters and villagers were searching through the rubble for survivors, but rough terrain, poor telecommunications and heavy rainfall hampered the rescue effort, Xinhua quoted Ding Wenlu, rescue headquarters chief, as saying.
Wang Hui, deputy head of Xiangfen county’s news centre, said that the site had been sealed off by security forces so he could not confirm the death toll or other details.
A woman from Xiangfen county’s work safety administration who refused to give her name said the authority could not provide any updated figures as its staff were working on Tashan, where there is no mobile telecommunications signal.
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 ageing infrastructure elements.