Business News/ Industry / Infrastructure/  Sri Lankan rescuers race against time as garbage collapse toll hits 23

Colombo: At least 23 people, including four children, were killed when a mountain of garbage came crashing down on homes following a fire near Sri Lanka’s capital, with rescuers racing against time to find any survivors.

Police have launched a probe to ascertain whether the collapse of the 91-metre open garbage pile on Friday was a natural calamity or an act of sabotage. A 10-member team of geologists of the Peradeniya University has been sent to the spot, the Colombo Page reported. Officials of mining and excavation divisions along with a group of judicial medical officials have also been called for investigation, the report said.

Over 100 houses were completely destroyed and more than 600 people fled in the aftermath of the fire and the collapse in Meetotamulla area in Kolonnawa, police said. Twenty-three people, including four children, were killed and 11 others injured in the incident, officials with knowledge of the matter said, adding that six persons were missing. More people were feared to be trapped as the military struggled to clear the rubble and rescue people or recover bodies. As rescuers were racing against time in the search for survivors, hopes of finding anyone alive continued to fade.

On President Maithripala Sirisena’s directive, hundreds of military personnel have been deployed to rescue the slum dwellers adjacent to the 300-foot (91-metre) garbage dump. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued an apology on behalf of the government to the victims. “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," Harsha de Silva, the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, said, adding the state will bear the funeral expenses of those dead. The minister said it was only a few weeks back that agreements had been signed to begin waste to energy projects at the dumping site. The mountain of garbage caught fire and collapsed on dozens of homes as the residents were celebrating 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 health hazard. About 800 tonnes of garbage is being added to the dump on a daily basis. “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.

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Updated: 16 Apr 2017, 06:00 PM IST
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