Rescue operations are continuing for the third day after a massive landslide following torrential rain is feared to have buried some 80 people, including some Catholics, in a hilly area of southern India.
Part of a hill caved in under a heavy rush of sludge and huge rocks on Aug. 6 that struck four residential quarters in the tea plantation area of Kerala state's Idukki district.
The bodies of 26 people have been recovered, but scores of people are still trapped under mud, rescue workers told media on Aug. 8.
The dead are mostly tea plantation workers who lived in Pottamudy village in the Rajamalai hill area of Idukki district. The site is about 25 kilometers from the international tourist town of Munnar.
"The intensity of the landslide was unimaginable. Four settlements of tea garden workers have been completely washed away from the face of the earth with no trace of them," said Father Victor Georget of Vijayapuram Diocese.
Father Georget, who works with the diocesan social service society, visited the area with Catholic volunteers. He said the tragedy occurred when people were sleeping at around 11pm.
"No one knew of the disaster until the next morning. Communication lines and roads were cut off in the area because of heavy rain and wind," said the priest based in Munnar town.
Along with some volunteers, the priest rushed to the spot in a jeep in the morning, but the journey took four hours longer than normal because floods had washed away a bridge connecting to the area.
"The sight of the landslide was so heart-wrenching. We could not find any trace of the people and their houses in the settlements," Father Georget said.
"We knew some 80 people, including men, women and children, must be under the debris. Among the missing are an elderly Catholic woman and her two grandchildren."
Some 20 children studying in two Catholic boarding schools also lived there as the schools were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A National Disaster Response Force team and a 50-strong special task force of the state fire service, equipped for night work, are among those leading rescue operations.
State Chief Minister Pinaryai Vijayan also sought assistance from the Indian Air Force to aid in rescue and relief efforts.
"Police, fire service and forest and revenue officials have been instructed to join the rescue efforts," Vijayan said.
Father Georget said they have no hope of anyone alive as three days have passed since the landslide.
"We cannot do anything much as the huge stones, mud and other debris are so strongly embedded in silt. Some heavy machines are required for further search operations. But such earthmovers cannot be brought in because roads are narrow and cut off in several places," the priest said.
"I have never faced such helplessness in my life."
Father Georget said government rescue teams and members of the public were doing their best, but the heavy rain and wind were slowing down their work.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced compensation of 200,000 rupees (US$2,850) to the family of each dead person and 50,000 rupees to those who were injured.
Kerala has a history of landslides during the monsoon season from June to December.
In 2018, floods and landslides claimed more than 500 lives when the state had its worst floods in a century. A similar situation occurred in 2019 but casualties were limited to 100.
The latest landslide is reminiscent of a landslide on Aug. 8, 2019, in the state's Malappuram district that killed 56 people.