Death toll rises to 23 after Indonesia landslide at illegal gold mine

Search for missing continues after torrential rains trigger disaster in a remote village on Sulawesi island.

Indonesia landslide
Rescue workers carry the body of a person who died in the landslide at Tulabolo village, Indonesia, on July 9, 2024 [Didot/AFP]

Indonesian rescue workers have been digging through mounds of mud and rubble to search for missing people after a landslide at an illegal gold mine on Sulawesi island killed at least 23 people, with the toll expected to rise.

At least 35 people were still missing, a rescue official said on Tuesday, after the incident on the central island.

Hundreds of rescue workers were deployed, as well as a helicopter, to the area located more than 2,000km (1,200 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta.

Unlicensed mines are common across the mineral-rich Southeast Asian archipelago, where abandoned sites attract locals who hunt for leftover gold ore without proper safety equipment. A quarter of the more than 8,600 unlicensed mines are gold mines.

The landslide hit a remote village in Bone Bolango district of Gorontalo province on Sunday following intense rains that engulfed the miners and nearby residents.

Rescue agency official Ida Bagus Nyoman Ngurah Asrama told the AFP news agency that 66 people survived.

More than 270 people, including police officers and soldiers, have been deployed as part of the search and rescue operation over the last two days.

Afifuddin Ilahude, a local rescue official, said the authorities sent in rescuers with heavy equipment in an operation hampered by heavy rains, unstable soil and rugged, forested terrain.

“With many missing and some remote areas still unreachable, the death toll is likely to rise,” Ilahude said, adding that sniffer dogs were being mobilised.

National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Abdul Muhari said the rains, which pounded the mountainous district, triggered a landslide and broke an embankment, causing floods up to the roofs of houses in five villages in Bone Bolango.

Nearly 300 houses were affected, and more than 1,000 people fled for safety.

“The miners felt a vibration, and then, within a matter of seconds, the area was buried. It all happened so fast, not even tens of seconds,” Muhari told Al Jazeera.

epa11466190 A handout photo made available by the National Search and Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) shows rescuers searching for landslide victims at Tulabo village, Samawa, Gorontalo, Indonesia, 07 July 2024 (issued 08 July 2024). According to The National Disaster Management Agency, six people died and 26 were missing in landslides at Tulabolo village in Gorontalo, which were caused by heavy rainfall over several days and unstable ground conditions, EPA-EFE/BASARNAS / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Rescuers search for survivors at the mine [File: Handout/ EPA]

The authorities said 79 miners were digging for gold at the mine.

Nopri, a miner, told news channel MetroTV that he spent about eight hours buried under about a metre (3 feet) of debris before he got out.

He and his companions survived by breathing air flowing in through gaps in the debris, and had some water left to fend off thirst, but they had been forced to wait for rescue, he added, the Reuters news agency reported.

“When we tried to get out, dirt fell back again,” he said. “So we were resigned, we just waited for help.”

Indonesia frequently experiences landslides, and the risk is often increased by deforestation and small-scale illegal mining operations in remote districts that are difficult for authorities to regulate.

Landslides, flooding, and collapses of tunnels are just some of the hazards miners face. Much of gold ore processing involves using highly toxic mercury and cyanide.

The country’s last major mining-related accident happened in April 2022, when a landslide crushed an illegal gold mine in North Sumatra’s Mandailing Natal district, which killed 12 women.

In May, at least 15 people died after landslides and flooding in South Sulawesi province swept away dozens of houses and damaged roads.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies