Dozens still missing in Sri Lankan garbage collapse; 29 dead

Rescuers on Monday were digging through heaps of mud and trash that collapsed onto a clutch of homes near a garbage dump outside Sri Lanka’s capital, killing at least 29 people and possibly burying dozens more.

Hundreds of people had been living in the working-class neighborhood on the fringe of the towering dump in Meetotamulla, a town near Colombo, when a huge mound collapsed Friday night during a celebration for the local new year, damaging at least 150 homes.

By Monday morning, authorities had pulled 29 bodies from beneath the debris, according to lawyer Nuwan Bopage, who has worked with local residents to protest the dump. Authorities were unsure how many more people could still be trapped, but about 30 were reported missing, Bopage said.

Soldiers were digging with backhoes and shovels, as relatives of the missing pointed out where their houses once stood amid coconut, mango and banana trees. Those homes now lay in piles of collapsed concrete walls encased in a wall of mud up to 8 meters (25 feet) high and mixed with plastic bags, broken glass and other trash. Bicycles and auto-rickshaws, the three-wheeled vehicles used as local taxis, were crushed or lying topsy-turvy.

More than 600 of the area’s residents were sheltering in nearby schools, while 11 people were being treated at a hospital for injuries.

One auto-rickshaw driver described a narrow escape. He was returning home with his wife, two sons and daughter when they stepped out from his rickshaw and his daughter said the ground seemed to be moving beneath her feet.

“There was a strong wind from the side of the dump, and my daughter shouted that the mound is splitting,” Rasika Sanjeewa, 41, said Monday. “Suddenly, one slice of the mound came crashing down. The whole area was shaking.”

Debris blocked them from fleeing immediately, but eventually they found a way out, Sanjeewa said. When they arrived later at their friends’ home, where they had planned to celebrate the new year, they found it buried and their friends dead — a mother and daughter who worked as daily wage laborers.

The prime minister vowed over the weekend to shut down the dump, which has absorbed much of Colombo’s garbage over several years amid heavy construction and renovations in the capital. As the garbage piled up, it began threatening the nearby homes, prompting residents to stage regular protests while complaining of health hazards.

“These people did not choose to live next to a dump. But they brought the garbage in and made this place horrible,” said rickshaw driver Dilip Mirmal, 34, whose home was spared while those surrounding were completely subsumed. He counted 23 of his neighbors among the dead.

“This is a government-made disaster,” he said. “I have a mix of feelings — of anger, frustration and sorrow. We have been trying to protest and raise these issues, but no one was listening.”

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