A thunderous crush of dirt and debris killed at least 19 people at a campsite in Malaysia on Friday, and rescuers dug through the mud for 14 others who feared they could be buried in the landslide. Two of the dead were found locked in an embrace, according to the state fire chief.
“The total is 19 people (dead),” Norazam Khamis, director of the Selangor state fire and rescue service, told reporters.
More than 90 people were sleeping on an organic farm when earth fell from a road about 100 feet above the site and covered about 3 acres.
Authorities told local media that the landowners did not have permits to run a campground. At least seven people were hospitalized and dozens more were rescued unharmed, district police chief Suffian Abdullah said.
Leong Jim Meng told the English-language daily New Straits Times that he and his family were woken by a loud bang and felt the earth move at the Batang Kali campsite, about 30 miles north of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“My family and I were trapped as dirt covered our tent. We managed to escape to a parking lot and heard a second landslide,” the 57-year-old said. He said it was surprising as there has been no heavy rain in recent days, only light drizzles.
It is currently the monsoon rainy season in Malaysia, and the country’s government development minister, Nga Kor Ming, has said that all campsites in the country near rivers, waterfalls and hills will be closed for a while. week to assess their safety.
The Selangor State Fire Department released photos of rescuers with flashlights digging through the ground and rubble with an excavator and shovels in the early hours of the morning. More than 400 people as well as tracking dogs took part in the search and rescue efforts.
Fire chief Norazam Khamis was quoted by the Free Malaysia Today news portal as saying two of the bodies found were “hugging” and believed to be mother and daughter.
Veronica Loi, who was camping at the site overnight and survived the landslide, told AFP her family were asleep when they heard a sudden loud noise.
“We saw that the tent next to us was totally gone,” she said.
About 450,000 cubic meters (nearly 16 million cubic feet) of debris – enough to fill 180 Olympic swimming pools – hit the campsite, said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change, to local media.
Suffian, the district police chief, said the victims entered the area on Wednesday, a popular recreation site for residents to pitch or rent farm tents. The campsite is not far from the resort town of Genting Highlands, a popular tourist destination with theme parks and Malaysia’s only casino.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is expected to visit the site on Friday evening.
Nga told local media that the campsite had been operating illegally for two years. The operator has government approval to run an organic farm but does not have a license for camping activities, he said. If found guilty, Nga warned that the camp operator could face up to three years in prison and a fine.
Some families with young children who were rescued took refuge in a nearby police station. Access to roads leading to the area has been blocked.
AFP contributed to this report.