Hundreds of people are feared dead after a mudslide on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, officials and witnesses say.
Victor Foh, vice president of the West African country, has said many people are still buried underneath the debris.
“It is likely that hundreds are lying dead underneath the rubble,” Foh told Reuters news agency at the scene of Monday’s mudslide in the mountain town of Regent.
He said a number of illegal buildings had been erected in the area hit by the mudslide.
“The disaster is so serious that I myself feel broken,” he said. “We’re trying to cordon [off] the area [and] evacuate the people.”
“I counted over 300 bodies and more are coming,” Mohamed Sinneh, a morgue technician at Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, told AFP news agency, having earlier described an “overwhelming number of dead” at the facility leaving no space to lay out every body.
Sierra Leone’s national broadcaster announced late on Monday that the death toll had risen above 300.
Initial Red Cross estimates said as many as 3,000 people were left homeless by the disaster and that figure was expected to rise. Communications and electricity also were affected.
The mortuary at Connaught Hospital was overwhelmed by the number of dead, and bodies had to be spread out on the floor, coroner’s technician Sinneh Kamara told The Associated Press.
The toll did not include the untold numbers buried alive in their homes as they slept. More bodies also were expected to be found as floodwaters recede.
Rescue workers tried trying to reach those trapped, after buildings were submerged in two areas of the city.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ishmeal Alfred Charles of the Healey International Relief Foundation, Freetown, described the situation as “disastrous”, saying that many houses had been “wiped away” by the rushing mudslide.
Sierra Leone’s national television broadcaster interrupted its regular programming to show scenes of people trying to retrieve their loved ones’ bodies.
Others were seen carting relatives’ remains in rice sacks to the morgue.
Images obtained by AFP news agency showed a ferocious churning of dark orange mud coursing down a steep street, while videos posted by local residents showed people waist and chest-deep in water trying to cross the road.
Military personnel have been deployed to help in the rescue operation, officials said.
Ramatu Jalloh, advocacy director of Save the Children in Freetown, told Al Jazeera that the death toll could still rise from the mudslide, which started early in the morning.
“It’s a pretty desperate situation,” she said as she described the frantic reaction of residents of the area as the flooding started.
Because of the scale of the tragedy, Jalloh said the country “needs more help and more support” to help the victims in the coming days.
Many of the impoverished areas of Freetown are close to sea level and have poor drainage systems, exacerbating flooding during the rainy season.