Shimla, Aug 13 (IANS) At least 24 persons were killed and over 18 missing after a massive mudslide that swallowed a 150 metre stretch of road, and buried homes, two buses and vehicles in Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district on Sunday, officials said.
Twenty-four bodies were recovered and five injured rescued after a day-long operation, Deputy Commissioner Sandeep Kadam told reporters at the spot.
He warned the death toll could rise as the search for survivors continues. Rescue workers were digging throughout the day to find survivors trapped by mud.
The mudslide occurred around 12.20 a.m. on the Mandi-Pathankot highway near Kotropi village in Jogindernagar tehsil, 220 km from here, when two Himachal Road Transport Corporation buses had stopped at a kiosk on the highway for refreshments.
"As per the last communication with the driver, the bus (to Manali) was packed to capacity," Transport Minister G.S. Bali told a news channel.
Over 40 passengers were on board the bus headed to Manali from Chamba at the time of the disaster.
The bus rolled down 800 metres below the road and is traced under a huge mound of debris, an official said. He said bodies of 21 passengers travelling in this bus were retrieved.
Mangled remains of the second bus bound for Katra in Jammu were retrieved totally. Three of the eight persons on the bus died.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the deaths.
"Pained by the loss of lives due to landslide related accidents in HP's Mandi district. My condolences with the families of the deceased," Modi said in a tweet.
Governor Acharya Devvrat also expressed grief.
Locals told the administration that they vacated their homes and ran towards the forest area minutes before the entire mountain dislocated and slid down.
"A few boulders started rolling down just ahead of the disaster. Sensing trouble, we all ran towards the forest area and managed to save ourselves," a survivor said.
She said her house was washed away in the mudslide and the livestock perished. The area has been witnessing heavy rains for the past one week.
A search and rescue operation is on involving local authorities, the Army and the National Disaster Response Force.
Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who visited the spot along with his cabinet colleagues, announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of those killed.
Leader of Opposition Prem Kumar Dhumal also visited the spot.
Describing the development "an unprecedented tragedy", the Chief Minister said the rescue operation would continue until the last body of victim was recovered.
He directed local civil authorities to assess the loss to the property at the earliest so that the sufferers could be adequately compensated.
Virbhadra Singh also met bereaved family members and expressed his heartfelt condolences.