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Overlooked safety risks added to landslide in China, reports say

Rescue workers rested near collapsed buildings at the site of a landslide at an industrial park in Shenzhen, China, Monday. Eighty-one people are missing.
Rescue workers rested near collapsed buildings at the site of a landslide at an industrial park in Shenzhen, China, Monday. Eighty-one people are missing. REUTERS

SHENZHEN, China — Rescuers searched for survivors in a sea of red mud Monday, a day after dirt and construction debris engulfed dozens of buildings in this city in southern China, the latest of several man-made disasters in recent years to raise questions about the perils of the nation’s rapid growth.

Hundreds of emergency workers used bulldozers and earth movers to search a 94-acre area. Some residents had for years worried that the dumping of debris so close to their homes was a crisis waiting to happen.

The massive wave of earth buried or toppled 33 buildings, including apartments, worker dormitories, and factories. As of late Monday, one body had been recovered and 81 people were missing.

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“Everyone was yelling, ‘Run, run,’ and I didn’t take anything except my baby,” Chen Qing said, as she nursed her 1-year-old son in a shelter for survivors set up in a sports center. “I don’t know who’ll help us now. Everything in our lives has been left in the mud.”

The landslide was particularly unsettling, commentators said, because it occurred in Shenzhen, widely viewed as an ambitious, modern city that has sought to rival its neighbor, Hong Kong.

It occurred about four months after explosions of toxic chemicals decimated a portside area of Tianjin, another coastal city that has envisioned itself as an engine for China’s economic rejuvenation. The blasts killed 150 people and injured more than 700.

Chinese news media have suggested that officials have allowed risks to fester, through corruption or laxity. The official response to such accidents, while often impressive in scale and speed, has done little to mute that criticism.

“What is troubling about this accident is that it occurred in a first-tier city, Shenzhen,” said a commentary in The Beijing News, a widely read tabloid newspaper. “It is at the forefront of Chinese citizens in its level of modernization.”

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On Monday, residents who had fled the mud said the semirural area should never have been used to dump dirt and rubble from local construction projects.

“They started piling up the dirt and waste roughly two years ago,” Li Xigui, a 52-year-old who has lived in the area for 15 years, said in an interview. “I knew something would go wrong.’’

He said that his home and adjacent workshop were swallowed by the landslide and that his mother had fractured a bone in her shoulder when her grandson yanked her out of the encroaching mud.

Dump trucks had piled dirt on the area, an old quarry, creating an unstable pile ripe for problems, he said. “When you put lots of dirt and waste in a place like this,” he said, “the pile can easily collapse and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a rainy day.”

A comment on the website of Caixin, a Chinese business and current affairs magazine, said: “We thought that this was another natural disaster, caused by soil erosion and many days of rain. But then everyone discovered that it was not mud from a natural hill that struck this industrial park and forced the collapses.”

Under Deng Xiaoping, Shenzhen grew from paddy fields in the late 1970s into a special economic zone for market-driven experimentation. It has increasingly moved into such industries as biotechnology and telecommunications.

In the Guangming New District, where the landslide struck, vegetable fields have been pushed back by spreading factories and neon-lit shops and restaurants.

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In late 2012, when newly appointed Communist Party leader Xi Jinping wanted to establish his reputation as an economic innovator, he traveled to Shenzhen. On Sunday, Xi, now president, ordered officials to “make every effort to reduce the numbers of casualties.”

China’s rapid growth has long created problems with the dumping of construction materials and displaced dirt, often resulting in illegal, multistory piles of debris on the outskirts of cities, blocking waterways and bringing dust and flooding.

Zongxing Environmental Technology, a company based in Shenzhen that conducts site surveys, had previously warned of dangers at the site, Chinese news outlets said. The company published an environmental impact assessment report in January warning of erosion risks that might cause landslides, according to The 21st Century Business Herald, a business news publication.

The report, which was published on the company’s website, and a related notice on the website of the government of the Guangming New District appeared to have been deleted.

A woman who answered the phone at Zongxing Environmental Technology said that the “relevant people are handling the incident” but declined to answer further questions. A spokeswoman for the Guangming New District Management Committee said information would be given through the district’s microblog account and news conferences.

Many residents recalled puzzlement giving way to fear, even panic, when the landslide struck. Some recalled the sound of a large blast, although it was unclear whether an explosion set off the slide or was caused by it. PetroChina said that its gas pipeline through the area had not exploded, despite earlier reports that it had.

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The damaged buildings included 14 factories, two office complexes, one cafeteria, three dormitories and 13 sheds or workshops, Shenzhen Deputy Mayor Liu Qingsheng said at a news conference.

Nearly 3,000 people were involved in the rescue efforts, aided by 151 cranes, backhoes, and other construction equipment, along with rescue dogs and life-detecting equipment.