'Only Three Survive' Sichuan Landslide as Rescue Effort Suspended

Local sources say state media have been ordered to focus on the rescue effort rather than the 100 or so people buried at the disaster site.

Rescue workers search for survivors following landslide in Sichuan's Mao county, June 26, 2017.

More than 100 people are still missing and presumed dead in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan after Saturday's massive landslide, with just three people—a couple and their baby—found alive, residents told RFA on Monday.

It was terrible, devastating; I don't know how to describe it," one resident who lives not far from the now-buried Xinmo village in Sichuan's Mao county said.

"Only three people were left alive out of the entire village. All of the houses were completely buried, but they were sleeping in the kitchen and they weren't crushed," he said.

"Everyone else was buried underneath it. Everyone they have dug out has been dead. Not one was [dug out] alive," said the resident of a village some two kilometres away from the disaster site.

"We heard the rockslide. We never thought it would be such a massive disaster," the resident said.

Meanwhile, the government has clamped down on the flow of information from the disaster site, issuing orders to all Chinese media outlets to stick to official news copy issued by Xinhua news agency or other central-government outlets, sources told RFA on Monday.

"To begin with, they saved three people, but in fact none of them had been buried under the landslide," the source said. "Since then, there hasn't been a single survivor."

He said the powerful propaganda department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has issued strict instructions to local media over coverage.

"The first duty of journalists at the scene is to sing the praises [of the rescue effort and reconstruction efforts]," the source said. "They are using people's lives to make paeans of praise. They don't learn any lessons."

Funding concerns

Meanwhile, local residents cast doubts on whether officially allocated emergency funding would be properly allocated.

A second Mao government official said she "had no idea why people would think that."

"They seem to think that we'll embezzle all of this money when we get it, but I can't explain it to them individually," she said. "We will be spending every payment we receive according to government requirements."

"We will also be publishing details online, and ... payments like this are usually audited anyway, even by the audit bureau at county level," she said.

An official who answered the phone at the Mao county government offices on Sunday confirmed that no more survivors have been found.

"No, there haven't," the official said, when asked if any survivors had been dug out from under the landslide, but declined to give further details.

"You should call [the emergency hotline] for specific figures," the official said. But an employee who answered the phone said that no figures were available.

Around 10 people had been confirmed dead when rescue efforts were suspended Monday evening owing to the risk of further landslides.

More than 60 homes in Xinmo are under the rocks and earth, where a large chunk of hillside slid off after prolonged heavy rain.

But orders were given to around 3,000 rescuers to call off the search after monitoring equipment found "movement and deformation" of the nearby hillside, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Rescue work had already been hampered by the sheer thickness of the layer of mud and rock covering the buried village, People's Armed Police traffic force chief of staff Gao Qiao told journalists.

"You can see that there was a huge amount of mud and rock that fell on the site, and the roads there are very narrow," Gao said. "This affected our ability to move in heavy machinery to help with the rescue effort."

"We think that many people remain buried under the landslide, but it is very difficult to get them out," he said.

Frequent disasters

Floods and other rain-triggered disasters are frequent in rural and mountainous parts of China.

In January, at least 12 people were reported dead after a landslide crushed a hotel in the central province of Hubei, while more than 70 perished in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen after a pile of improperly stored earth collapsed onto nearby buildings.

In August 2010, experts said overdevelopment and environmental mismanagement were at least partly to blame for a mudslide in central China’s Gansu province that left more than 1,000 people dead in Zhouqu county.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Wong Si-lam for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.