Beijing: At least 59 people, including 23 women, were missing today after hundreds of tonnes of mud from a crumbling mountain engulfed 33 buildings and triggered an explosion at a gas station in an industrial park in Shenzhen, China's biggest manufacturing hub.
In what is being regarded as one of China's worst urban disasters, 14 people were pulled out of the mountain of mud that swamped the vast area of the new industrial estate. Three people were injured in the disaster.
The 59 missing included 36 males and 23 females, Yang Feng, an official with Shenzhen's emergency management office told reporters tonight.
More than 1,500 people including firemen, police and health workers are involved in the rescue operations, searching the debris for any trapped victims.
The rescue headquarters said they have detected signs of life at three separate locations of the site. Rescuers were battling unfavourable geological conditions to save those trapped under the debris. A family of a grandfather and three children was among the missing, state media reported.
The cause of the landslide was unclear but a probe was underway.
"The site is quite narrow and is located on a ramp, so it is very difficult for vehicles to enter. We have to go there on foot," Ao Zhuoqian, an official of Shenzhen's fire control department, told state-run Xinhua news agency.
Rescue efforts were being hampered by a spate of obstacles, including rain, low nighttime visibility and the large amount of mud, Ao said.
A woman surnamed Hu told the local Shenzhen Evening News that she saw her father engulfed by earth in his own truck.
"It's been hours after he was buried, and we are quite worried," Hu said.
The landslide buried 33 residential and industrial buildings, officials said.
A statement on Weibo, China's micro-blogging site akin to Twitter, from the Shenzhen municipal government said the landslide also triggered an explosion at a nearby gas station.
A nearby section of the West-to-East natural gas pipeline exploded after the landslide struck the Hengtaiyu industrial park at around 11:40 AM which resulted in amassing of more than 100,000 square metres of debris, media reports said.
Videos on China's social media showed vast amounts of red mud pouring into the city with huge noise around 11 AM engulfing building after building.
The mud slide slowed down as it approached the main area of the estate providing time for many people to escape.
Rescuers evacuated more than 900 residents from the site by evening.
The buildings buried in the landslide also included two workers' dormitories. A residential area was also situated beside the industrial park.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang ordered immediate rescue efforts saying no efforts should be spared to save lives.
Xi ordered Guangdong and Shenzhen authorities to do everything possible to minimise casualties, treat the injured and comfort the family members of the victims.
He also said scientific rescue efforts are needed to prevent further damage. Li urged the ministry of land and resources and other central authorities to send officials to help the local government in its rescue efforts. He ordered a probe into the cause of the disaster.
China's cabinet has sent a working group to Shenzhen to help coordinate rescue efforts.
An area of 20,000 square metres was covered with soil, according to the Ministry of Public Security's firefighting bureau.
A resident living about four km away from the site was quoted as saying that he heard "a loud explosion" at around noon.
"It must be a big accident, as I could hear the sound from so far away," the resident said.
An employee with the Liuxu Technology Company in the park said power supply in the firm suddenly went down at around noon.
"I saw red earth and mud running towards the company building," he said.
"Fortunately, our building was not hit, and all people in our company were safely evacuated," the employee said.
He said the landslide first crashed into a fish pond before burying buildings in the park, with water splashing up to three storeys.
"Without the pond's buffer, there would have been more damage," he said.
Ren Jiguang, deputy chief of Shenzhen's public security bureau, told a TV station that most people had been moved to safety before the disaster hit.
More than 600 rescuers were at the scene, Ren said.
The Beijing Youth Daily, citing a local resident, reported that the loose soil in the landslide had been dug up in construction work over the past two years and piled up against a 100-metre-high hill.
State media also carried photos of partially collapsed buildings.
Critics have blamed excessive industrialisation around mountains resulting in recurring landslides all over the country putting the safety people to risk.