MANGAN, India – Soldiers in northeastern India cleared a path Wednesday to a hydroelectric project where 17 people were confirmed killed by landslides in a powerful Himalayan earthquake, bringing the overall toll in the disaster to 99.
The 6.9 magnitude quake Sunday evening claimed lives in northeastern India, Tibet and Nepal. Rescue efforts have been hampered by heavy rain and mudslides that blocked the roads leading to villages in the remote, mountainous region.
Several of those slides hit the area around the hydroelectric plant being built along the Teesta, a glacier-fed river in the Himalayas in the northern part of the Indian state of Sikkim.
A press statement from Teesta Urja Co., which is building the plant, said 10 workers were killed when their vehicles were buried during the quake by boulders dislodged from a hillside. Another seven were killed in a separate landslide.
Only one worker was still missing, the statement said. Officials had earlier said that as many as 40 workers were unaccounted for.
The statement said that the company, with help from the army and paramilitary troops in the area, had begun transporting 10 injured workers to nearby hospitals. Mud and rocks blocking the roads to the plant had hampered rescue efforts.
P.P. Baby, a senior executive with the company said the quake did not damage the plant, part of which is almost complete.
"The dam and the power plant structures are completely safe," he said.
The deaths from the quake were spread across a wide swath of the Himalayan region, with officials reporting 68 dead in the worst-hit state of Sikkim, 12 in West Bengal, six in Bihar, six in the neighboring Nepal and another seven in the Chinese region of Tibet. The toll was expected to rise as rescue workers gained access to remote villages in the sparsely populated region.
Sikkim's Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling told reporters Wednesday that according to initial estimates the earthquake had caused losses and damage worth one trillion rupees ($22 billion).
Chamling said that nine villages in northern areas still were cut off from the rest of the state.
Troops have been airlifting rescuers and dropping food and supplies to the cutoff areas, but word on casualties and damage has been slow to come by.
Nearly 60 tourists, stranded in the popular mountain resort of Lachung, clambered onto army helicopters Wednesday and were ferried to the nearest town of Mangan.
"We've been waiting to be rescued," Kiran Palany, a Mumbai businessman, told the AP from Mangan. "It's been a harrowing three days."
With roads out of Lachung blocked by mudslides, Palany said he, his wife and their four companions had no choice but to wait for help to reach them.
"It was scary. The place is rife with rumors about more quakes and the local people are spending the night outdoors. We had to stay put. There was no way of getting out of Lachung," Palany said.
Lachung is around 75 miles north of Gangtok, the Sikkim state capital.
In Gangtok, thousands of people rattled by aftershocks and fears that their homes could collapse instead sheltered on the grounds of a university and at a sports stadium.
By late Tuesday, a few villagers with badly injured relatives had begun to arrive at Gangtok's main hospital from more remote areas.
Thurba Singh Sherpa said he walked for nine hours carrying his 6-year-old son, who was injured when a large boulder fell on the jeep he was traveling in. Two other children died on the spot and two others, more critically injured, were airlifted by helicopters, Sherpa said.
The region has been hit by major earthquakes in the past, including in 1950 and 1897.