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Almost 50 workers are still missing in China after the collapse of a hill in a section of an open pit coal mine that killed six people, according to the latest provisional casualty count.

The search and rescue operation, involving hundreds of rescue crew members, continues two days after the tragedy in the Inner Mongolia region (north).

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Dozens of workers were crushed to death last Wednesday when most of a 180-meter hill collapsed in an open-pit coal mine, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

The company had to be suspended due to another landslide on Wednesday night, but has now resumed, according to CCTV, which clarified that the death toll now stands at six dead, six injured and 47 missing.

China’s Ministry of Emergency Management said that “all possible efforts are being made to find the missing” and called on “not to lose hope that they will be found”, the official Chinese news agency New China reported.

“Saving lives remains the number one priority,” according to a ministry official cited by the agency, while “efforts must be made to prevent secondary disasters.”

CCTV footage shows rescue workers in orange suits on top of a mountain of debris and construction machinery removing some of it.

“We had just got to work” when “we saw rocks begin to fall from the top of the hill. More and more were falling,” said surviving worker Ma Jianping. “It was decided to evacuate (the mine), but it was already too late. The whole hill collapsed,” he added from his hospital bed.

Police investigation

The causes of the tragedy are not yet known. Xinjing Coal Mining Company, which operated the mine according to CCTV, did not respond when AFP tried to reach it by phone.

According to a report by Chinese public television, a police investigation has now begun. New China reported that the Ministry of Emergency Management has ordered a “full” investigation.

The area where the tragedy unfolded is sparsely populated and its economy relies heavily on coal mining.

Mine safety has improved in recent years in China, as has media coverage of disasters; in the past, many such tragedies were kept quiet. Nevertheless accidents in the field remain frequentdue to the inherent riskiness of the activity, as well as the improvisations in several cases regarding the implementation of occupational safety measures.

In late December, 40 people were working in gold mine galleries when parts of it collapsed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (northwest). 22 managed to get out alive.

In December 2021, two workers trapped in a flooded coal mine in Shaanxi (North) died; 20 others were rescued during an operation.

And in September 2021, 19 miners who were also trapped in the bowels of the earth in Qinghai Province (northwest) were found dead, after long and painstaking searches.