As the number of people reported missing under tonnes of mud and wreckage surged to at least 85, the Chinese authorities doubled the number of rescuers yesterday to search for landslide survivors in southern Shenzhen.
Nearly 3,000 men have been deployed to an industrial park in Shenzhen's Guangming New District, with excavators and firefighters racing against time to sift through the rubble of 33 buildings that had toppled on Sunday.
Rescuers found "many signs of life" but faced numerous challenges getting to the survivors, according to Shenzhen's housing and construction bureau director, Mr Yang Shengjun, yesterday.
"Excavators have dug down 8m to 9m without being able to reach the bottom," he told reporters at a press conference.
The Chinese authorities added that the wet mud made even walking difficult for rescuers, but that it was unlikely there would be further landslides.
There have been no confirmed casualties as of press time.
'Indiscriminate dumping' to be blamed
Shenzhen has been struggling to cope with increasing amounts of soil waste from construction, which has been fingered as the cause of Sunday's landslide, said Chinese media reports.
While an official investigation is under way, China's Ministry of Land Resources has blamed the disaster on a mountain of waste construction mud near Liuxi Industrial Park that purportedly had been dumped in an abandoned quarry. The large amounts of soil were stacked too steeply, resulting in "instability and collapse", the ministry said in a statement yesterday.
At least 85 people are still missing in the massive landslide, which buried 33 buildings at the park located in the north-west of Shenzhen.
The city had been warned of this problem, Chinese media reported. In October last year, Shenzhen Evening Post reported that it was increasingly hard to find places in the city to dump soil. Only 12 legal sites are available and they "will only last a year", an unnamed official was quoted as saying.
A Beijing Youth Daily article yesterday added that the problem has plagued the coastal city for years, beginning in 2008 when it started constructing a network of subway lines.
Reports noted that Shenzhen has limited land. Located just across Hong Kong, the former sleepy fishing village has expanded rapidly since it was designated a special economic zone in 1980. An industrial park worker told National Business Daily that "more than a hundred trucks" had turned up daily in the past two years to dump soil nearby. The soil had reportedly reached 100m, or the height of a 20-storey building.
Contrasting satellite images of the area from 2013 and April this year show a mound of earth where a reservoir had once been, reported Bloomberg.
"We had complained before... because it's polluting and because it's dangerous," the worker was quoted as telling National Business Daily. "This is loose soil. It could easily cause problems."
The report added there had been only light drizzles in the area recently rather than heavy downpours, which are usually associated with natural landslides.
If the initial findings turn out to be true, the incident will raise more questions about industrial safety in China, which has been criticised as lax.
The landslide took place just four months after massive chemical explosions rocked Tianjin, killing more than 160 people.
A commentary in The Beijing News slammed the incident as one "which is hard to accept" as it should not have happened in a modern city like Shenzhen.
"Currently, some cities are world leaders in economic innovation," it said. "But when it comes to governance, they remain in the agrarian times."
Teo Cheng Wee
The official Xinhua news agency said that the State Council, the country's Cabinet, has despatched a team of senior officials and experts to oversee and help rescue work.
Earlier, President Xi Jinping had ordered the provincial authorities to do everything possible to minimise casualties, treat the injured and comfort family members.
The landslide, believed to be the first that has hit Shenzhen, tore through factories, low-rise buildings and dormitories on Sunday morning.
Videos taken by witnesses showed chaotic scenes as residents fled gushing rivers of mud in fear.
The landslide reportedly took place over 30 minutes, time enough to allow some 900 people to evacuate to safety.
It also caused a major natural gas pipeline nearby to explode, but the resulting leak did not cause any fires. The ruptured pipe has since been emptied, with owner Petrochina building a temporary replacement.
Shenzhen's deputy mayor, Mr Liu Qingsheng, said the landslide covered an area of 380,000 sq m - or about 50 football fields - with silt 10m deep.
That is 20 times larger than the initial estimate given by local firefighters on Sunday.
Amid the rescue operation, more harrowing tales emerged of the disaster, with a witness recalling that "smoke billowed out from the hill" before the landslide took place.
Eight-year-old Ou Yangqi, recounting his "horrifying" experience from a hospital bed, told state broadcaster CCTV: "My father just grabbed me and we jumped from our building."
Another local resident, surnamed Zeng, told The Beijing News that the landslide triggered explosions at petrol stations, causing the air to be filled with thick smoke that reduced visibility to "near zero".
He packed his wife and parents- in-law into a car before driving out of the disaster zone with only his memory as a navigation guide, "smashing numerous other cars on the way out".
"Seeing the collapsing houses and silt towering a few storeys high, my legs went soft," he said. "I almost just dropped to my knees."
Villager Peng Jinxin, who similarly had a close shave, described "huge waves" of mud, which was only 10m away from her at one point.
At least 16 people have been hospitalised so far, according to media reports.
But survivors now face an agonising wait for news of their loved ones, with some people missing entire families.
Rubbish collector He Weiming, 36, said he and his brother had gone out in the morning for work and returned only to find his house completely buried in mud.
The Henan native could not find his parents, his wife, two children, his sister, and three nieces and nephews.
"I dialled 40 mobile numbers and none could be connected," he told Xinhua.
Mr Liu Guonan from the China Academy of Railway Sciences described the landslide as the worst he has seen in 30 years.
He believes it is the first time in China that a landslide has hit a city like Shenzhen.
While investigators are still trying to officially ascertain the cause of the landslide, fingers are already being pointed at improperly dumped soil, dug up from nearby construction sites.
Local residents told Chinese media that workers had piled soil up to 100m at a disused quarry on a hill behind the industrial park.
The Ministry of Land Resources said in a statement yesterday that the soil was stacked too steeply, resulting in instability and its eventual collapse.
Guangming New District, located in the north-west of Shenzhen, houses at least 125 high-tech companies and 22,000 enterprises. It has a population of 110,000.
The possible cause of the massive landslide, in one of China's richest cities, has triggered public outrage.
A commentary in The Beijing News yesterday said people are "stunned" to find out that "something as dangerous as soil piled up a few hundred metres high can happen in a mega-city like Shenzhen".
"Where is the early warning mechanism that should match the governance of a big city?" it said.