At least 91 people were missing after a huge mound of mud and construction waste collapsed at a business park in southern China and buried 33 buildings in the country’s latest industrial disaster.
Premier Li Keqiang ordered an official investigation into Sunday’s landslide in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, which happened four months after huge chemical blasts at the northern port of Tianjin killed more than 160 people.
The mud and waste smashed into multi-storey buildings at the Hengtaiyu industrial park in the city’s northwestern Guangming New District, toppling them in collisions that sent rivers of earth skyward.
“The area affected equals 14 soccer pitches – so that gives you an idea of how big this thing was,” Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown reported.
“Most of [the missing] are migrant workers,” he said, adding that it is usually migrant workers who are most badly affected by such disasters in China.
Speaking to the official Xinhua news agency, a local worker said: “I saw red earth and mud running towards the company building.”
One woman told the Shenzhen Evening News newspaper on Sunday that she saw her father buried by earth in his truck.
“It’s been hours since he was buried, and we are quite worried,” she said.
Xinhua said 14 people had been rescued and more than 900 people had been evacuated from the site by Sunday evening.
Rescue operations were slowed by numerous obstacles, including continued rain, low visibility overnight, and mud, Ao Zhuoqian, a member of the Shenzhen fire brigade involved in on-site rescue, told Xinhua.
State television showed scenes of devastation, with crumpled buildings sticking up from heaps of brown mud which stretched out across the edge of the industrial park. The mud had covered an area of more than 60,000 square metres (72,000 sq yards) and was six metres deep in parts, state media said.
More than 2,000 rescuers – with sniffer dogs and drones – were sifting through rubble looking for survivors after the landslide left everything covered in mud, leaving only a surface of yellow sand visible, Xinhua said.
The accumulation of a large amount of construction waste meant that mud was stacked too steep, “causing instability and collapse, resulting in the collapse of buildings”, the ministry of land resources said in a statement, referencing an investigation from provincial authorities.
A nearby section of China’s major West-East natural gas pipeline also exploded, state television said, though it was not clear if this had any impact on the landslide.
Xinhua said the pipeline was owned by PetroChina, China’s top oil and gas producer, that the 400m-long ruptured pipe “has been emptied” and a temporary pipe will be built.
Contacted by Reuters news agency, the company said it was looking into what had happened.
Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered provincial authorities to do everything possible to minimise casualties, treat the injured and comfort family members, Xinhua said.
The frequency of industrial accidents in China has raised questions about safety standards after three decades of breakneck economic growth.
In one of China’s worst landslides in living memory, more than 1,500 people died in 2010 when a barrage of mud slid down a mountainside into a town in the northwestern province of Gansu following torrential rain.