NEW DELHI: Rescuers battled through heavy rains on Thursday in a desperate search for victims of a landslide in western India that buried dozens of homes, with fears the death toll could reach 150.
Thirty people were confirmed dead and eight pulled alive from the mud and debris in Maharashtra state, but with the rain and strong winds hampering rescue efforts, hopes of finding any more survivors were fading. “Miracles do happen, we will keep looking, but under current conditions it is very, very bleak,” said Alok Avasthy, NDRF regional commandant at the scene, who said about 160 people were thought to have been living in the dozens of damaged houses.
Relatives told of losing whole families after the hillside gave way early on Wednesday in a remote area of Pune district, sending tonnes of earth and trees crashing onto a village below. “I lost my dad, mum, nephew, my whole family. What will I do? I have nothing left,” inconsolable Usha Vilas Gavar, 30, told AFP close to the scene. Twisted metal utensils and shreds of clothes lay among the debris from the landslide which hit Malin village while most of its residents were sleeping.
The NDRF said eight survivors have so far been pulled from the site, but rescue efforts were slow going, with heavy machinery halted at one point on Thursday morning because of the rains. Among the handful rescued were Pramila Lembe, 25, and her three-month old baby Rudra, who were recovering with no major injuries in hospital having been shielded by their home’s tin wall. “I was breast-feeding the baby when I heard a loud thunder-like clap. I tried to run but the wall collapsed,” Lembe told AFP.
“I held the boy somehow. I tried to shout but heard no one,” she added. The pair were found by rescuers about eight hours after the landslide. A mass cremation for the victims was expected later in the day. Dramatic footage of the landslide showed a chunk of hillside giving way on Wednesday with a cascade of mud, rocks and trees, sending up clouds of dust below. “The mudslide must have been massive and very quick considering it has covered an area roughly the size of a football field with nearly 10-15 feet (3-4.5 metres) of debris,” Avasthy said.
The NDRF mobilised 378 rescue workers to help with the search, although its vehicles had difficulty accessing the site along narrow, damaged roads. The army was seen arriving to help on Thursday afternoon. Sniffer dogs remained locked up in a village health centre because the animals were unable to pick up scents in the incessant rains, while workers faced the risk of further landslides. India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who visited the site, raised the issue of environmental damage from deforestation.
“We have to ensure that we maintain environmental balance along with development,” he told reporters. The alarm was first sounded when a state bus driver failed to see the usual hamlet dwellings as he drove past the area, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. PTI said the victims were members of a tribal community that survived by paddy farming on hill slopes in the once densely forested region.
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