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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Massive landslides triggered by torrential rains crashed down onto three villages in the central hills of Sri Lanka, and more than 200 families were missing Wednesday and feared buried under the mud and debris, the Sri Lankan Red Cross said.
Sixteen bodies have already been recovered and about 180 people have been rescued from the enormous piles of mud unleashed at around 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to military spokesman Brig. Jayanath Jayaweera.
Villagers recalled hearing and seeing the torrents of muddy water, tree branches and debris crashing down around their homes.
"I heard a huge sound like a plane crashing into the earth," said 52-year-old A.G. Kamala, who had just returned to her house in Siripura village when the landslides hit. "I opened my door. I could not believe my eyes, as I saw something like a huge fireball rolling down the mountain and again a huge sound."
More than 300 soldiers were joined by local residents digging through the mud with their hands, sticks and shovels to search for survivors in the farming villages of Siripura, Pallebage and Elagipitya in Kegalle District, about 45 miles north of Colombo, Jayaweera said. Heavy fog and continuing rain, along with electricity outages and the instability of the ground, were complicating rescue efforts.
Some 220 families were reported missing, the Sri Lankan Red Cross said in a statement. Officials could not give the village populations, but such villages typically include about 1,000-1,500 residents each.
As anxious family members waited for news about missing loved ones, officials said the full extent of the tragedy was still unclear.
One woman, 70-year-old A.G. Alice, said all nine of her children were unaccounted for. "I don't know what happened to me after" the landslides hit with "a thundering sound I have never heard in my life," she said.
A man said his wife, mother-in-law, son and daughter-in-law were all in his house in Siripura when the landslides hit. "I still can't locate my family," M.W. Dharmadasa said. "I still don't know what happened to them."
State broadcaster Rupavahini showed images of huge mounds of earth covering houses, while cascades of muddy water gushed from hilltops above. Villagers said 66 houses had been buried or damaged, according to local journalist Saman Bandara.
More than 1,000 people who escaped the disaster were sheltering and being treated for minor injuries at a nearby school and a Buddhist temple, according to government official Mahendra Jagath.
The same rains that unleashed the mudslides have also caused severe flooding in cities including Colombo, the capital, where tens of thousands of homes were at least partially inundated. Schools were closed due to the bad weather.
Sri Lanka's disaster management center had reported 11 deaths from lightning strikes and smaller landslides elsewhere in the Indian Ocean island nation on Monday and Tuesday. Nearly 135,000 people across the country have been displaced and were being housed in temporary shelters.
Officials warned that more landslides and lightning strikes could occur in the countryside, as more rain was forecast along with rough seas along the coasts.
Mudslides are common in Sri Lanka during the monsoon season, with heavy deforestation to clear land for agriculture leaving the countryside exposed.
During heavy rains in December 2014, Sri Lankan authorities evacuated more than 60,000 people from thousands of homes damaged or destroyed by floods or landslides. Two months before that, dozens of tea plantation workers were killed when mudslides buried their hillside homes.