‘It did not stop’: 14 missing after massive landslide in Swiss Alps engulfs homes

Village near Italian border is evacuated, with party of eight hikers among those missing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 August, 2017, 7:16am

As many as 14 people are feared missing after a massive landslide swept away a mountainside in the Swiss Alps, ripping apart buildings and forcing the evacuation of a village, police said.

The landslide, which struck on Wednesday, sent mud, rocks and dirt flooding down the Piz Cengalo mountain into the outskirts of the village of Bondo, near the Italian border.

About 100 people were evacuated, some airlifted out by helicopters.

Police in the canton of Graubunden, which initially announced no one was hurt, confirmed Thursday that eight hikers, from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, had been in the region of Val Bondasca where the landslide occurred and were missing.

The Austrian foreign ministry confirmed that a couple from the country was missing, while Swiss daily Blick reported that four of those being searched for were German nationals.

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Another group of five to six people had also been reported missing, Andrea Mittner of the Graubunden police told a news conference, adding though that it was unclear if they had actually been in the affected area at the time of the landslide.

“Perhaps they had already left” the region, he said.

No children were believed to be among the missing, he said.

He said a massive search-and-rescue operation was scouring a five square kilometre area, involving about 120 emergency workers, helicopters and rescue dogs.

Police and residents stressed that the mobile phone coverage in the area was spotty at best, voicing hope that might explain why the missing had not been in touch.

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The landslide set a full four million cubic metres of mud and debris in motion, its relentless moving mass stretching 500 metres across, according to the regional natural hazards office (AWN).

The event was so severe that the vibrations set off seismometers across Switzerland, which measured the equivalent of a magnitude 3.0 earthquake, according to the Swiss Seismological Service.

Images showed an unstoppable mass of thick mud and sludge moving down the mountainside like lava, tearing up trees and demolishing at least one building in its path and partially engulfing others.

“It was terrible,” said Elisa Nunzi, 27, who witnessed the landslide from her home in a neighbouring village.

She said she first noticed something was amiss when a large flock of birds began flying nervously around the church tower, and then a deafening bang that sent rocks pouring down the mountain.

“There were so many. It did not stop,” she said.

“You could not see anything for an hour. But you could still hear stones falling down. It smelled of granite,” Nunzi said.

Police said 12 farm buildings, including barns and stables, had been destroyed, while Graubunden’s main southern highway was closed to traffic. Around 100 people had been evacuated from Bondo and surrounding villages, as well as from Alpine cabins, amid fears of fresh landslides.

Wednesday’s landslide was not the first to hit Piz Cengalo. In 2012, nearly 400 million cubic metres of mud, rocks and gravel – the equivalent of 4,000 standard-sized houses – poured down the mountainside, landing in an uninhabited valley.

Following that incident, an automatic debris alarm system was installed.

That alarm was set off when Wednesday’s landslide barrelled down the mountain at 9:30am, police said, sparking an immediate deployment of emergency services.

The last deadly landslide to hit Switzerland was in November 2014, in the city of Davesco-Soragno, killing two people and injuring four others.

One of the worst such accidents in the wealthy Alpine country in recent years happened in 2000, when 12 people perished and four others were declared missing after floods in the southern canton of Valais.