World News

Sierra Leone mudslide: Desperate hunt for 600 people still missing

Posted August 15, 2017 8:54 a.m. EDT
Updated August 15, 2017 11:03 a.m. EDT

The hunt for survivors of the deadly mudslide in Sierra Leone continued Tuesday as the official death toll rose to 245, with numbers expected to grow and hundreds still missing.

"More bodies have been discovered. The number rose from 205 to 245, the search continued this morning, and we expect that number to rise," Abu Bakarr, spokesman for the Red Cross in Sierra Leone, told CNN on Tuesday.

Heavy rain, normally a blessing at this time of year in West Africa, turned into a nightmare on Monday when flooding caused torrents of mud to wash down Mount Sugar Loaf about five miles outside the capital Freetown, according to government officials and aid agencies.

A chunk of the mountain came down under the force of the water, onto the houses that hugged the slopes, many of them little more than wooden shacks with tin roofs in this desperately poor nation.

"Social welfare is out on the streets of Freetown registering and talking to survivors as we try to ascertain exactly how many people are missing," Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesman for President Ernest Koroma, told CNN.

He said that a Sierra Leonean and a Chinese construction company had provided heavy-duty excavation equipment to help the military looking for people under the mud and rubble.

Charity: Children among missing

The charity Save the Children confirmed that a staff member and his young children are among the hundreds of people missing.

Another Save the Children staff member, Ramatu Jalloh, was near the scene when the disaster happened.

"We were driving on the main road out of Freetown past Regent when a lady ran onto the road and started gesticulating wildly. She called out to another lady who had been riding a bike in front of us who, after a brief conversation, started crying and looked very upset," she said.

"It was clear from their reactions that something terrible had happened. Soon afterward, another man ran towards our car. He was crying about the number of lives that had been lost."

"As we continued down the road we could see there was a serious issue. Tons of water was rushing across the road, splitting it in half. We contacted the Save the Children office immediately to tell them that something was seriously wrong."

600 still unaccounted for

All of the 245 bodies located so far have been brought to the central morgue at Connaught Hospital in Freetown, according to Bakarr from the Red Cross.

Another 600 people are still believed to be unaccounted for, and between 2,000 and 3,000 have been displaced, Bakarr said.

"The scenes are heartbreaking, with the sounds of wailing and mourning everywhere as relatives struggle to cope with the loss of loved ones and the complete devastation of their homes and settlements," said James Chifwelu, national director of the charity World Vision in Sierra Leone.

"It's disturbing that so many lives have been lost following this heavy rain and mudslide. But it's most disturbing that many children in their school uniforms were unfortunately fatally caught up in the landslide and many more are homeless, orphaned and will be without food and clothing for days to come. This certainly calls for immediate action.''

It is the rainy season in Sierra Leone and this year has been particularly wet, with Freetown receiving more than 27 inches of rain between July 1 and August 13 -- more than double the average of 11.8 inches, according to the US National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the amount of rainfall Freetown received between July 1 and August 13.