Hundreds of people may be missing after a mudslide triggered the collapse of a reservoir of iron ore waste in northern China, burying houses and sweeping away cars in a wall of thick sludge that killed at least 34 people.
Yesterday's landslide, caused by torrential rain, injured 35 people at the Tashan iron ore mine in Shanxi province. More than 1,100 police, firefighters and villagers were hunting for survivors in the rubble, the official Xinhua news agency said.
State radio added in a report on its website that "several hundred" were missing, though it did not provide any additional information. Xinhua said the number of people missing had yet to be determined.
"We're busy trying to rescue people but it's very hard work with all the mud and rocks," said Hu Yanzai, Communist Party secretary of Chongshi, which is next to the villages that were wiped out.
"It's hard to estimate how many died. It's all mud and we don't know how many escaped," Hu told Reuters by telephone. "I'd estimate at least 100 (dead). It's a big area ... I don't know what to feel. I feel numb."
Xinhua said the flow of mud and rock destroyed a three-storey office building, a market and houses in the valley. "Witnesses said the flow roared down the valley and washed away the market and the houses in a few minutes," it added.
One resident, who asked not to be identified, said he had been told the scene was horrible.
"It was not a mudslide or rain. It was man-made calamity, not a natural disaster," he said by telephone. "I went to the site this morning, but it has been blocked."
Officials had rushed to the mine to direct rescue efforts.
"Our preliminary investigation found that this accident was caused by illegal enterprises who discharged waste sand into a mine tailings dam," deputy work safety chief Wang Dexue told state television.
"When the dam reached its capacity, it burst. Heavy rain accelerated the process."
The mine owner and eight others had been held, Xinhua said.
Several officials, including the local head of the work safety administration and at least one village Party secretary have been sacked for failing to prevent the disaster, it added.
Pictures showed overturned vehicles covered in a sticky sludge and parts of houses buried under several metres of dark mud. Rescuers clambered over the scene looking for survivors, some using excavators, others their hands.
On an Internet chatroom hosted by popular portal Baidu (http://www.baidu.com) for residents of Linfen, near where the accident happened, one user said word from the mudslide site was that "the situation was much worse than imagined".
Another said: "The black-hearted mine bosses make their fortune and leave, and leave behind a deadly mess."
Newspapers reported in April that Shanxi had launched a three-year campaign to lower hazards from mines and tailings.
Mining areas now covered more than 5,000 km (1,930 sq miles) of the province, officials said, and 676 villages were threatened by subsidence, building damage and other geological hazards, including 201 under serious threat.
China's mining industry is the world's deadliest, killing nearly 3,800 people last year, as high demand for raw materials on the back of an economic boom pushes managers to cut safety corners to boost output. Most victims are coal miners.
Strong iron ore prices and China's desire to limit its dependence on imports have allowed miners to dig up even very low-grade deposits, often with little regard for safety or environmental measures.
Because iron ore mines are generally open pits, they are less likely than coal mines to collapse and kill miners trapped inside, and so have not attracted as much regulatory attention.Reuse content