Geneva: Eight hikers are missing after a massive landslide swept away an entire mountainside in the Swiss Alps, ripping apart buildings and forcing the evacuation of a village, police said on Thursday.
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 had initially announced that no one was hurt.
But on Thursday they acknowledged that rescue workers were flying over the area in search of mountain climbers and hikers who might have been hit by the massive slide.
“In the region of Val Bondasca, eight people who were there at the time of the landslide have not been found,” said a police statement, adding that the missing were German, Swiss and Austrian citizens.
Swiss daily Blick reported that four of the missing were German, while two were Swiss and two Austrian.
A police spokesman told the 20 Minuten daily that there were no children among the missing, who were all believed to be hikers.
Six of the eight had been reported missing by their relatives, police said, adding that the search for them had intensified overnight, with a Swiss army helicopter taking part.
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, ripping apart at least one building in its path and partially engulfing others.
A broad swathe of farmland was engulfed in the river of debris.
Police said 12 farm buildings, including barns and stables, had been destroyed, while Graubunden’s main southern highway was closed to traffic.
“The affected area was really vast,” said Simona Rauch, a Protestant minister at a church in Val Bregaglia, a valley that groups several villages including Bondo.
She told journalists that there were always many tourists hiking there at this time of year.
But she said mobile phone coverage is spotty at best in the area, which could explain why it had not yet been possible to get in touch with the missing people.
Police on Wednesday evacuated Bondo, and had also evacuated two Alpine cabins, pointing to the risk of further landslides.
Residents have not yet been permitted to return home. Authorities said they would re-evaluate the situation Thursday afternoon.
“People left immediately leaving everything behind. They didn’t bring anything, because they thought they would be returning quickly,” Rauch said.
“No one expected this kind of catastrophe.
“We don’t know how long they will need to stay away from their homes, because for the time being there is neither water nor electricity in Bondo village,” he added.
Residents were being housed in nearby hotels, including in the village of Castasegna on the Italian border.
Rauch said many Bondo residents had also spent the night at a retirement home in the nearby village of Spino, where they had received food, a bed and medication for those who had left theirs behind.
She said her church was preparing to receive four other Bondo residents.
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 (0730 GMT), 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.