BEIJING (AFP) – Rescuers pulled 15 bodies from an avalanche of rocks that buried a mountain village in south-west China on Saturday (June 24) as an increasingly bleak search for some 100 people carried into the night.
Only three survivors – a couple and their one-month-old baby – have been found so far after 62 homes in Xinmo village vanished under a mass of mud and rocks in Sichuan province.
Heavy rain caused the side of the mountain to collapse onto the riverside village in the early morning, according to authorities.
Qiao Dashi, the baby’s father, said he had woken up after 5am to change his crying son’s diaper when he “heard a big noise coming from the back”.
“The house shook,” he told state broadcaster CCTV from his hospital bed.
“Rocks were in the living room. My wife and I climbed over, took the baby, and got out.”
“I have superficial injuries. Overall, I’m okay. But psychologically, it’s hard. The entire village, with dozens of families, was flattened,” he said, with a bandage around his head.
The rescue operation’s headquarters reported that 15 people had been found dead by the late evening, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The Maoxian, or Mao county, government said earlier that six people died and 112 people were missing. Xinhua had reported that more than 120 were buried.
The landslide blocked a 2km, stretch of river and 1.6km of road, according to state media.
As night fell, authorities shined lamps onto the rubble while rescuers wore lights on their helmets as they sifted through the rocks, aided by sniffer dogs, according to photos from the official Xinhua news agency.
During the day, rescuers and local residents used ropes to move a boulder while others lifted rocks with their bare hands, according to videos broadcast by the Maoxian government and CCTV.
Nearly 2,000 police, soldiers and civilians were taking part in the rescue.
Bulldozers and excavators that were used earlier in the day stopped their work due to bad lighting as night fell, according to CCTV.
No sign of the village could be seen in aerial footage, which showed a grim and grey rock-strewn landscape covering the area where it once existed by a river.
“It’s the biggest landslide in this area since the Wenchuan earthquake,” said Wang Yongbo, one of the officials in charge of rescue efforts, referring to the disaster that killed 87,000 people in 2008 in a town in Sichuan.
MORE RAIN FORECAST
Local police captain Chen Tiebo said the heavy rains that hit the region in recent days had triggered the landslide.
“There are several tonnes of rock” over the village, he told CCTV.
“It’s a seismic area here. There’s not a lot of vegetation,” Chen said.
Trees can help absorb excess rain and prevent landslides.
Tao Jian, director of the local weather service, told CCTV that the 2008 earthquake had “weakened the mountain” and that even a small amount of rain could provoke a geological catastrophe.
President Xi Jinping called for rescuers to “spare no effort” in their search for survivors and prevent more disasters, state media said.
China’s national weather observatory said more heavy rain was expected in parts of Sichuan and other southwestern provinces.
More than 100 people living close to the landslide were being evacuated on Saturday night, Xinhua reported.
Landslides are a frequent danger in rural and mountainous parts of China, particularly at times of heavy rains.
At least 12 people were killed in January when a landslide crushed a hotel in central Hubei province.
More than 70 were killed by a landslide in the southern commercial hub of Shenzhen in December 2015, caused by the improper storage of waste.
One of the deadliest landslides took place in 1991, when 216 were killed in southwestern Yunnan province.