​Survivors recall deadly landslide at hydropower plant

By Nguyen Dong   October 16, 2020 | 07:27 pm PT
A survivor remembers hearing cries for help as he clawed his way out of what was left of a construction site following a landslide Monday.

At the Rao Trang 3 dam construction site at the Thua Thien-Hue Province dam in central Vietnam, there had already been some erosion as a result of persistent and heavy rainfall for a week. Roads were blocked, making travel difficult.

Nguyen Dinh Minh, 63, one of the workers at the site, said a landslide had sent earth slamming into a 30-ton cement trailer on Thursday last week.

But he never expected himself to be one of the lucky ones to escape from another landslide just a few days later that claimed the lives of at least two colleagues.

The second landslide at midnight on Monday buried the construction site deep within a forest in Phong Xuan Commune in Phong Dien District.

Seventeen workers were feared to have been buried, with the bodies of two of them having been recovered by Friday.

Minh and around 40 others managed to escape and reach the Rao Trang 4 hydropower plant about 10 km away.

Nguyen Dinh Minh, 63, recalls the night of October 12, 2020 when a landslide buried the construction site near the Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant in Thua Thien-Hue Province. Photo by VnExpress/Dong Long.

Nguyen Dinh Minh, 63, recalls the night of October 12 when a landslide buried a construction site near the Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant in Thua Thien-Hue Province. Photo by VnExpress/Dong Long.

On Sunday afternoon a manager at the site told Minh to cook an early dinner for all the workers. In preparation for possible flooding, the workers moved their motorbikes and machinery elsewhere inside the Rao Trang 3 operation center, Minh said.

Many wanted to go home, but were not able to due to the rain.

After finishing dinner at around 5:30 p.m., the workers retired for the night. There were 17 people working inside the operation center. They had been told to move away from that place, but asked to stay as the surrounding areas, including hills, had been eroded and they "did not know where it would be safe."

Ho Van Dieu, 22, joined Minh, Nghia and Thinh for a few drinks that night. Thinh and Nghia later asked Dieu to stay in the operation center for the night, but he declined since it was raining and he did not want to go.

Dieu said: "I told the two of them to give me a lamp so I could keep watch for the night. If there was a landslide, I would warn them."

One did come at around 11 p.m, with rocks and boulders beginning to roll down toward the operation center. But not until around midnight did Dieu hear a loud noise, which prompted him to run outside to check.

It was too late however. Both the operation center and the resting areas nearby were buried under rocks and soil. Nghia and Thinh were still inside.

The Rao Trang 3s operation center prior to it being buried under in a landslide on October 12, 2020. Photo obtained by VnExpress.

The Rao Trang 3 operation center before it was buried under in a landslide on October 12. Photo obtained by VnExpress.

Ho Van Thoang, 27, was caught in the landslide as well. Despite being buried, he called out to others in the dead of night, trying to find any survivors.

"In reply were faint whispers, weakly confirming they were still alive," he said.

As he struggled to orient himself, soil engulfed him once more. As the rocks and mud kept falling down, Thoang could hear cries for help echoing around him. Mustering all his strength, he clawed his way out of the wreckage.

In the place he crawled out of, there had been seven people.

Everything at the resting area had been swept away, but Thoang managed to salvage a mobile phone from underneath the rocks.

Getting back on his feet, Thoang turned on the phone's flashlight and looked for others.

Survivors began finding each other afterward. Thoang helped free 25-year-old Ho Van Trieu, who had an injured leg.

Minh had been hit by a falling tree, but managed to get out. There were seven survivors, several wounded in the legs and face.

Not daring to stumble around in the dark, they climbed a high enough hill to recover and wait for dawn.

Ho Van Thoang, 27 (dressed in white) sits with three fellow workers at the Binh Dien Hospital. Photo by VnExpress/Dong Long.

Ho Van Thoang, 27, (in white) with three fellow workers who survived a landslide at their hydropower plant construction site, at a hospital in Thua Thien-Hue Province. Photo by VnExpress/Dong Long.

At around 6 a.m. on Monday morning the group started to walk to Rao Trang 4, around 10 km downstream. Others took turns to carry Minh and Trieu on their backs.

They waded in knee-deep mud toward the hydropower plant, with only dry, raw noodles to eat.

They managed to reach the place at around noon, joining around 30 others also from Rao Trang 3, including three Indian engineers.

Five people from Dieu’s group were taken to a hospital that afternoon to treat light injuries. As search parties began to reach their destination, 19 people were rescued from Rao Trang 4 by Wednesday afternoon.

But the fate of those left behind in Rao Trang 3 is still not certain.

As of Friday afternoon only two bodies had been found at the site, meaning around 15 others were still missing.

Rescuers are searching for them.

Tragically 13 rescuers too died in yet another landslide. A team of 21 had been dispatched to Rao Trang 3 on Monday. The rescuers stopped at a ranger station on the way for the night, and a landslide hit the place at midnight Tuesday, and only eight managed to escape. The rest were confirmed dead on Thursday.

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