Rescue workers in Sri Lanka’s capital city on Saturday dug through the debris of a garbage dump that collapsed on top of a residential neighborhood a day earlier, burying scores of homes and killing at least 19 people.
Witnesses described hearing a loud explosion around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, then running in terror as an avalanche of garbage engulfed homes.
“We heard something that sounded vaguely like rocks being unloaded from a dump truck,” said Sukarnika Rajapaksa, 52. “People were shouting, screaming, ‘Run, run!’ I stepped out to take a look, and I saw one of the nearby houses coming our way amidst a cloud of smoke.”
From a neighbor’s house, she watched the trash approach, carrying a red-painted house toward her, and then stop. When it did, her home was submerged in fetid water.
Residents have long objected to the hulking garbage dump and the trash-soaked water that pours into narrow lanes of surrounding neighborhoods when it rains, leaving pools of standing water where mosquitoes breed.
Successive governments have groped for a solution, at one point proposing that city garbage be transported by rail and dumped in a quarry, said Raisa Wickrematunge, co-editor of Groundviews, a citizen journalism initiative. Still, year after year, the mountain of garbage continued to grow, with tractors scaling its sides to dump fresh loads.
“It requires urgent action, too, because as we have seen, people’s lives are at stake,” she said.
Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s deputy foreign minister, described the collapse as the culmination of “a problem running for decades, perhaps as long as 20 years.” He expressed sympathy to bereaved families, but he said it was “unfortunate” that many families had been compensated to move from the area but failed to do so.
He added that garbage would no longer be deposited at the site.
The police said Saturday that they thought an explosion underneath the dump had set off the landslide, sweeping as many as 100 houses off their foundations and sending them crashing into neighboring homes. Some were deposited 30 yards from their original locations, a few landing on the roofs of other houses, said Priyantha Jayakody, deputy inspector general of police.
Mr. Jayakody said it was unclear whether the explosion had been natural or man-made.
Sugath Dammika, 41, a laborer, said he had just dropped off two of his sons at his sister-in-law’s house when it was buried by waste. As he spoke, his wife was at a government morgue, identifying the body of their elder son. The younger son is still missing.
“They say he’s still buried,” Mr. Dammika said. “We’ve been looking everywhere. There was no one to help.”
Police officers on Saturday still hoped to find people alive under the rubble and had retrieved 19 dead bodies. More than 180 people lost their homes, and that number may increase; a territory extending 600 feet in all directions has been declared a danger zone.
Nalini Liyanage said eight people were in her house when they heard the initial explosion, and they immediately left the house and ran as neighboring houses barreled toward them on a wave of waste.
“I fell, my legs were aching, but if we hadn’t run, we would’ve been buried under the rubble,” she said.
She said local residents had organized protests after torrential flooding last year, which caused water to accumulate in the garbage dump.
“They promised to put an end to the problem, but nothing happened,” she said. All her family’s possessions remain in their house.
“We’ve been asked not to go back,” she said. “They’re underwater, anyway.”