KOSLANDA, Sri Lanka: Soldiers using heavy diggers stepped up their desperate search on Thursday for victims of a landslide in central Sri Lanka, feared to have buried alive 100 people on a picturesque tea plantation.
Hundreds of troops were clawing through tons of mud that buried tin-roofed homes at the plantation on Wednesday, and reinforcements have been deployed, but there was little hope of finding survivors.
“We are also bringing in an additional 200 troops to add to the 500 already here to carry out the search,” the region’s top military officer, Major General Mano Perera, told reporters.
Rescue efforts were being hampered by persistent monsoon rains, blamed for the initial mudslide, that have also made the surrounding hills unstable, he said.
“There were no concrete structures which could have acted as air traps for victims to survive,” he added.
Shop keeper Vevaratnam Marathamuttu said he ran when tons of earth came crashing down the hill on Wednesday morning, fearing there had been an explosion.
“I thought it was some sort of a bomb blast and fled from my shop,” Marathamuttu said. “I saved my life because I ran away,” he added.
Truck driver Sinniah Yogarajan, 48, said there was “no point in my living” after five members of his family along with his friends were buried in the disaster.
“The soldiers are trying their best but every time they scoop out some of the mud the hole then just gets filled up again with more mud,” he said.
Top officials have warned the chances of finding survivors are slim, while a government minister voiced fears the death toll could hit 100.
“What I gathered is that about 100 people have been buried alive,” Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told Agence France-Presse after visiting the site on Wednesday afternoon.
There had been fears of an even higher toll when officials initially said that up to 300 people were unaccounted for, but the minister said most of those who were classified as missing were later found to be at work or in schools.
Fears of more landslides
President Mahinda Rajapakse spoke with survivors during a visit Thursday to one of the two schools turned into temporary shelters.
More than 300 survivors camped overnight in the schools near the Meeriyabedda tea plantation, which bore the full brunt of the mudslide.
But hundreds more workers and their families from neighboring plantations were flocking to the schools, fearing landslides would also strike their homes.
Sri Lanka’s picturesque hill region is famed for producing Ceylon tea and has become a major tourist attraction with visitors able to stay on the plantations.
Perera, who is overseeing the clearing operation, said an area less than one square kilometer was affected.
“[But] The area is flooded with muddy water, so we don’t hold out much hope of finding survivors,” Perera added.
The number of homes destroyed was revised down to 63 on Thursday from 150 given earlier by the national Disaster Management Center (DMC).
“We had difficulty communicating with our officers and sometimes rumors were reported to us as facts,” the Colombo-based DMC spokesman Sarath Kumara told Agence France-Presse.
An office where village records were maintained was also destroyed in the disaster, causing problems for the authorities in compiling reliable casualty figures.
If the official number of dead does hit 100, the disaster would be the worst since the Asian tsunami in December 2004 when 31,000 people died on the island.
The minister said on Wednesday that surrounding areas were unstable as a result of the heavy rains of the last few days and expected the recovery operation to proceed “cautiously.”
Sri Lanka, a tropical island at the foot of India, is prone to weather-related disasters—especially during the monsoon season when the rains are often welcomed by farmers.
Cyclonic winds that accompanied the monsoon in June last year killed 54 people, mostly fishermen.