Myanmar jade mine collapse kills at least 162

  • >> Saw Nang and Richard C Paddock, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-02 13:47:34 BdST

People carry a dead body following a landslide at a mining site in Phakant, Kachin State City, Myanmar on Jul 2. MYANMAR FIRE SERVICES DEPARTMENT/via REUTERS

With barely enough time to yell “run,” hundreds of jade miners had only moments to escape their killer: a giant wave of mud and water, more than 20 feet high, propelled out of a giant pit mine swollen with rainwater.

Weeks of heavy rains, carried by the seasonal monsoon, had filled the Wai Khar jade mine in northern Myanmar and turned it into a lake. Towering over the pit was a 1,000-foot hillside topped with a mound of mining waste, its foundations weakening with every drop of rain.

Just after sunrise Thursday the earth began to shift and a wall of mud cascaded down the mound’s steep slope, slamming into the flooded mine and sending a huge wave of water along its walls as rushing green water swept from one end of the lake to the other.

“When the open-pit mine collapsed, the workers didn’t have time to run away,” said Tin Soe, the region’s representative in parliament. “The height of the wave was about 20 feet, and it drowned many people. It was like a tsunami.”

Hundreds of miners who were digging for jade illegally near the water’s edge were quickly overwhelmed by the muddy green wave. Some managed to run to higher ground. But many were not so lucky.

By evening, officials said 162 bodies had been recovered, and officials expected the death toll to surpass 200. Officials said there was little left for rescuers to do but retrieve bodies that floated to the surface.

The disaster occurred after a heavy rainstorm in Hpakant township in Kachin state, where miners labour in notoriously hazardous conditions to produce jade worth billions of dollars.

The government ordered the mines in the region to close from July 1 to Sept. 30 because of the risk of landslides during the heavy rains of the monsoon season, officials said.

But at the Wai Khar mine, hundreds of illegal workers came in to take the place of the regular miners despite the risk, Tin Soe said.

“The government ordered them to stop because it is dangerous to work here in the rainy season,” he said by phone from the scene of the disaster. “But after the mining companies stopped, an illegal ethnic armed group took money from the illegal miners and gave them permission to work here.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service