July 31, 2014 / 2:31 PM / 5 years ago

Rescuers slog through waist-deep mud to dig out submerged village houses after landslide

MALIN VILLAGE India (Reuters) - Rescuers in India waded waist-deep through swirling sludge to dig their way into dozens of submerged homes on Thursday and find more than 100 people swallowed up by a landslide that flattened almost an entire village.

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel clear the debris as onlookers watch at the site of a landslide at Malin village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra July 31, 2014. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

The confirmed death toll was 35 from Wednesday’s landslide on a hill above Malin village, said H.H. Chauhan, deputy director of health services in the district where the village is located.

Medical staff and residents tried to cremate the dead by a river flowing past the village, but the wood was too damp from incessant rain and did not burn.

Not a single survivor has been pulled from the site.

The head of rescue operations at the National Disaster Response Force said 125 people were feared trapped. Rain and poor communications hampered the teams working in the village, 60 km (35 miles) from the city of Pune in a remote part of Maharashtra state.

“We have mapped the 46 houses and are trying to remove the mud from the most densely populated areas,” said operations chief Alok Avasthy. Most dwellings were thatch huts or brick houses.

Seven teams of 42 workers each fanned out across the vast pool and four earth moving machines scooped out mud spread over an area the size of a soccer pitch.

Emergency teams lined a path along a river, one of several flowing into the area from hills, looking for bodies that might have been washed away. The frame of a motorbike floated by on a torrent of mud, an indication that bodies could be underneath.

A handful of residents escaped as the hill came down.

Meenabai Lembe, injured by falling pieces of wood, was pulled to safety by her husband, who had been working in nearby fields. She knew nothing about her two children and her mother-in-law, who were asleep in the house when the landslide struck.

“I heard a loud noise, like thunder, and couldn’t understand what was happening,” said Lembe, who is being treated for injuries at a rural clinic.

Heavy rain raised fears of another landslide.

The village school, one of the only roofed buildings to survive, was pressed into service as a makeshift shelter for rescue workers, while police were stationed in trucks to provide backup.

A senior district official, Saurabh Rao, said the region had received 118 mm (more than 4.5 inches) of rain the day before the incident. A team of geologists was trying to determine the cause of the landslide, Rao said.

Rainy season downpours, though vital for agriculture, can often bring disaster. Unprecedented rain last year wreaked havoc across Uttarakhand state in the Himalayas, swelling rivers and lakes, inundating towns and killing thousands.

Environmentalists say construction of hydro-electric dams, involving blasting tunnels through mountains to carry diverted flows of water, deforestation and the spread of unregulated buildings along river banks magnify the impact of heavy rains.

Writing by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Rafael Nam and Ron Popeski

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