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Landslide In Northern India Leaves At Least 24 Dead, More Missing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A massive search-and-rescue operation is underway in Northern India. On Sunday, a landslide barreled down out of the Himalayan mountains. At least two dozen people have been killed. More than 150 are missing. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: One local resident said it happened so fast there was no time to alert anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANDSLIDE)

FRAYER: Video shows a torrent of rocks, water and debris surging down a ravine below the Nanda Devi glacier. A hydroelectric dam snaps in half and washes away. Many of those missing are construction workers trapped in a tunnel underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

FRAYER: Soldiers and police are spending a second night trying to dig them out. This man was one of the lucky ones pulled out alive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "We'd lost all hope. We thought we would die," he says, describing how he clung to the tunnel's roof as water gushed in. This is an area of India's Uttarakhand state, where mighty rivers pour down from the Himalayas. But environmental experts have long warned against building dams and power plants there because it's ecologically fragile and so prone to floods and landslides. In 2013, about 6,000 people died in flooding there.

DAN SHUGAR: We're starting to see, you know, some of the impacts of climate change - increased numbers of landslides, really large landslides in the high mountains.

FRAYER: Geoscientist Dan Shugar is on the other side of the world at the University of Calgary poring over satellite images of this disaster.

SHUGAR: What's a little odd about this one is, you know, it happened in February when, you know, the ground ought to be frozen.

FRAYER: Indian authorities have described this as a glacial break, part of the Nanda Devi glacier cleaving off. But Shugar says it looks to him more like a landslide. He says it'll take weeks or months to investigate.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

FRAYER: Meanwhile, the Indian military is airlifting in more equipment. The people trapped underground may have only hours.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "CITIZEN OF GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.