Witnesses described a mass of red earth and mud racing towards the park in the city of Shenzhen in “huge waves” before burying or crushing homes and factories, twisting some of them into grotesque shapes, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The landslide was caused by the improper storage of waste soil from construction sites, according to the official newspaper of the Ministry of Land and Resources.
The soil was allegedly illegally stored in piles 100 metres high at an old quarry site and turned to mud during heavy rain Sunday morning (Dec 20), the state-run Global Times reported.
There were 91 people missing as of 9am Monday, according to officials from the city’s emergency office cited by the Shenzhen Evening News newspaper.
More than 1,500 emergency workers were involved in the rescue, and 104 fire engines were dispatched, Xinhua said.
It said debris covered more than 10 hectares.
Industrial accidents are common in China, with safety regulations often overlooked due to corruption. An explosion in August in the port city of Tianjin that killed nearly 200 was blamed on improperly stored chemicals.
In the Shenzhen incident, about 900 people were moved out of harm’s way before the landslide struck late in the morning in the city, which borders Hong Kong. Four people have been rescued, three of whom had minor injuries.
Buried in mud
“I saw red earth and mud running towards the company building,” one local worker was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
A woman surnamed Hu told the Shenzhen Evening News on Sunday that she saw her father buried by earth in his own truck.
“It’s been hours after he was buried, and we are quite worried,” she said.
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.
Photos showed victims wrapped in green blankets sleeping on floor pads and eating instant noodles.
He Weiming, a migrant worker at a temporary shelter, said he had lost contact with 16 different friends and family members, including his parents, wife and two children, and had made dozens of phone calls to try to find them, all of which went unanswered.
“When my brother and I drove out in the morning to go collect garbage, our home was still fine, but when we came back… the house had been buried in mud – you couldn’t even see the roof of our four-metre-high sheet-metal house,” he told an online news site run by Internet giant Tencent, while crying and flipping through photos of his children on his cellphone.
“There are many other homes around mine – I don’t know if others escaped.”
The slide ruptured a natural gas pipeline and triggered an explosion heard about four kilometres away, Xinhua said.
Nearby gas stations have stopped supplying the pipeline and no gas leaks have been found, the Global Times cited the local fire department as saying.
A landslide last month that engulfed 27 homes in rural Zhejiang province killed 38 people.