A landslide sweeps through Zhouqu county seat in Gansu province on Sunday morning. [PHOTOS BY GONG ZHISHUI / XINHUA]
ZHOUQU, Gansu - A rain-triggered landslide hit Zhouqu county in Gansu province on Sunday morning, killing at least 127 people and leaving 1,294 others missing, the rescue headquarters said on Sunday.
At least 76 people were injured as of 4 pm on Sunday and rescuers were racing against time to dig out survivors from crushed homes, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said.
Torrential rain began lashing the county at about 11 pm on Saturday and runoff from the downpour built up behind a landslide on the BailongRiver, which runs through the county seat town.
The clogged river in the narrow valley spilled over its banks, triggering floods and mudslides that hit the town after midnight. The disaster smashed a small hydro station and left more than 100 people dead, Xinhua News Agency reported.
The landslide flattened an area 5 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. "Most of the 2,000 people living in the area failed to escape in time and were drawn into the mud," authorities from the Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, which administers Zhouqu, said in a statement on its website.
At one point, the flood inundated about half of the county seat, which has about 40,000 residents. The floodwaters reportedly reached up to three stories high on some buildings.
Pu Junli, a military official who led rescue efforts, told China Central Television the sludge was "too massive, mostly as thick as one meter".
Rescuers from local governments and military bases have been arriving at affected areas since Sunday morning and local rescue headquarters deployed more than 1,000 workers to search for the missing.
The PLA Lanzhou Military Area Command has also sent medical teams and 2,800 soldiers to the county.
Similarly, the Ministry of Public Security on Sunday activated its emergency response mechanism to organize about 1,000 firefighters and special police in nearby areas to head for the affected area to rescue victims, the ministry posted on its website.
More than 680 residents had been rescued by noon and the water level in the county seat of Chengguan township had started to retreat, said Mao Shengwu, head of the prefecture.
About 45,000 people had been evacuated as of 4 pm, the provincial civil affairs department said.
Temporary shelters were set up at two middle schools to house the victims. By 3 pm, the provincial civil affairs department had provided 3,900 tents, 40,000 packs of instant noodles and 31,300 boxes of bottled water to the county.
The China National Committee for Disaster Reduction, the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters and the Ministry of Civil Affairs lifted the national disaster relief response level to grade II, the second-highest level.
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao instructed Gansu provincial authorities and other related departments to spare no effort to save lives. Wen arrived at Zhouqu county at 4:35 pm to oversee on-site rescue work.
The landslide also damaged the county's water supply system and severely affected essential rice, flour and oil shops, resulting in a shortage of instant foodstuff and drinking water for residents, the local government said.
The county will need 10,000 tons of water and 500 tons of instant food supplies in the next 25 days, after which life is expected to return to normal, a county spokesman said.
Troops were also preparing explosives to blast away the mud and rocks that have choked the BailongRiver. The mud and rocks created a backlog of water 3 kilometers long and 100 meters wide, Xinhua reported.
Premier Wen told officials to develop a plan as soon as possible to unblock the river safely.
Authorities from the two neighboring counties of Longnan city at downstream of the river also evacuated 19,000 people on Sunday.
But local conditions hampered rescue work, authorities said.
"Since excavators can't reach the affected site, we can only use spades and our hands to reach those buried," Niu Yongfu, deputy chief of staff with the Gansu Headquarters of the Chinese People's Armed Police Force, told China Daily on Sunday evening.
"It's very hard to locate the people washed away by floods," he said.
Feng Lei, 44, a local doctor whose house was inundated by floodwaters, told China Daily that "the wind and rain was not strong when the landslide arrived, but the water was raging".
"People were screaming for help, some were washed away in just seconds," he said.
The Gansu Electric Power Corporation said two-thirds of the county's power was out. Some communications links were also reportedly down because of the power outage.
The State Grid Corporation later sent 150 people with electricity generators to the site. The first batch of 35 workers arrived at the county seat at about 12:40 am.
By 4:14 pm, power supply was restored to some parts of Zhouqu county, including temporary housing areas, hospitals, two middle schools and communications base stations .
Roads at the outskirts of Zhouqu also reopened after they were blocked by the mudslides, the provincial administration bureau of highways said.
Shen Gang and Xinhua contributed to this story.