Hundreds of rescuers raced against time on Sunday to find survivors after a mountain of garbage collapsed on dozens of homes following a fire near the Sri Lankan capital two days ago, as the death toll in the tragedy reached 24.
Several heavy earth-moving equipment were digging through the dump in Meetotamulla area in Kolonnawa near Colombo to find survivors as at least six were still reported missing.
The military said 1,000 security personnel, including police and special task forces, have been deployed for rescue operation. It said troops from the Sri Lanka Light Infantry, Commandos, Gemunu Watch and Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment were carrying out relief operations, the Colombo Gazette reported.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was to proceed to Vietnam from Japan on an official visit, is to cut short his trip following the tragedy, his office said.
Wickremesinghe’s office said that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzoi Abe, who was in a meeting with him in Tokyo on Sunday, has offered Japan’s assistance with the rescue efforts.
The National Building Research Organisation said the site of the accident be declared a “danger zone” and people living in over 130 houses in the area must be relocated for safety.
RMS Bandara, a top building research official, explained the incidents leading to the mishap. “What happened was that the weight of the garbage dump had caused the nearby lands to pop up, causing the collapse of the houses. Later the garbage dump had fallen on the houses burying them.”
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha De Silva said nearly hundred people have been moved to temporarily shelters and the government will soon begin shifting more people.
Schools and others facilities will be moved as well.
De Silva said the dumping of garbage at the site has been banned. Ironically, the government had signed agreements a few weeks ago to convert the waste into energy, he said in a post on Facebook.
Police were investigating whether the collapse of the 91-metre open garbage pile could be a sabotage. A 10-member team of geologists, officials from mining and excavation divisions, have been sent to the spot.
More than 600 people had to flee in the aftermath of the mishap on Friday. Twenty-four people, including four children, were killed and 11 others injured, officials said.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in a statement has apologised for the delay in relocating the garbage dump.
“We had all plans in place to relocate the garbage dump at Meetotamulla. But the tragedy struck before we could put them into action. We apologise for the government’s inability to complete the task before the disaster,” he said.
The residents near the dump had been protesting for months, demanding that the garbage dump be relocated.
The authorities, however, claim that they had given enough warning to the slum dwellers to relocate themselves.
“We had even paid compensation to them to relocate,” De Silva said. He said the state will bear the funeral expenses of the dead.
The massive garbage caught fire and collapsed on dozens of homes as the residents celebrated the traditional New Year.
Police said the true scale of the damage remained unclear.
Sri Lanka’s Parliament was recently warned that 23 million tonnes of garbage at Kolonnawa dump was a serious hazard. About 800 tonnes of garbage were added to the dump daily.
“This is not a natural disaster but man made due to the sheer negligence by the authorities concerned,” M S Marikkar, the ruling party local member of parliament, said.