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    Guangdong Highway Disaster: Authorities Probe Cause, Toll Now 48

    The Meizhou-Dabu Expressway in southern China collapsed on the first day of this year’s five-day Labor Day holiday. The mishap has been attributed to recent heavy rainfall and complex geological conditions.

    As rescue operations continue in south China’s Guangdong province after a catastrophic highway collapse resulted in the deaths of 48 people, authorities have begun investigating the causes of the disaster.

    The collapse occurred on a major route on the Meizhou-Dabu Expressway and has been linked to recent heavy rainfall and complex geological conditions. Amid efforts to stabilize the area, traffic control measures have been implemented to ensure the safety of the rescue teams and the public.

    The disaster struck on the first day of this year’s five-day Labor Day holiday, when many were traveling on toll-free highways despite forecasts of rain. The collapse, in which a 17.9-meter-long section of the highway suddenly gave way, occurred at around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, trapping 23 vehicles.

    By Thursday afternoon, the toll stood at 48 dead, with 30 injured and bodies of three more individuals pending DNA confirmation. Rescue operations led by local authorities have been ongoing, with plans for a thorough survey to ensure no one is left unaccounted for at the scene.

    Eyewitnesses recalled the harrowing ordeal to domestic media. “The bridge collapsed, and many cars fell down, with continuous explosions,” one told the Shanghai-based outlet, The Paper. Another described how fire trucks arrived at around 2:50 a.m., quickly opening the barrier on the opposite lane to guide stranded vehicles away from the danger zone.

    One survivor told The Paper that at the time of the collapse, most passengers in her car, including herself, were asleep, except for the driver. “Suddenly, I felt the car drifting as the highway surface began to collapse. Half of the car was about to fall off, while the other half remained on the road,” she recalled. “It was like a scene from a movie, and our lives were hanging by a thread.”

    Following the collapse, domestic media also reported that many vehicles caught fire or were buried under mud, complicating the rescue efforts in the geologically complex and rain-saturated area, increasing the risk of further incidents.

    Wen Yongdeng, head of Meizhou’s Emergency Management Bureau, told media on Thursday that 577 rescue personnel were on site, working in shifts. The ongoing rescue operations involve using life-detection devices and other search instruments to ensure that no vehicles or individuals are missed.

    While the results of an investigation into the mishap are still pending, a geological expert in Meizhou stated that prolonged heavy rain or excessive water could lead to soil saturation and the sudden loss of strength, potentially contributing to the collapse.

    An on-site investigation by The Paper found that continuous heavy rainfall throughout April triggered multiple small-scale landslides near where the incident occurred, occasionally blocking roads in surrounding villages. Maintenance personnel from an adjacent national highway reported a recent increase in their workload due to numerous minor collapses.

    According to official data, rainfall in Guangdong between January and April was significantly above average, measuring 641.7 millimeters — or 63% higher than the average for the same period in previous years. During this period, 11 cities in the province broke historical records for rainfall in April, with Meizhou experiencing an average rainfall 3.5 times higher than usual.

    Authorities predict continued heavy-to-torrential rain, accompanied by severe convective weather conditions such as thunderstorms, strong winds, and hail across parts of Guangdong from Friday to Sunday. The China Meteorological Administration forecasts that central and northern areas of the province may receive 100 to 180 millimeters of rainfall, with some localities potentially reaching 200 to 250 millimeters.

    Last April, continuous heavy rainfall triggered a slope collapse on another section of the same Meizhou highway, disrupting two-way traffic. An on-site investigation revealed the area’s complex geology posed a major safety hazard, with the potential for tens of thousands of cubic meters of earth to overturn the lane.

    Parts of Guangdong province have been severely affected by extreme weather events in recent weeks, including record-breaking rainfall and a “once-in-a-century” flood that isolated northern towns. Last week, a strong tornado, along with large hailstones and heavy thunderstorms, caused at least five casualties and damage to hundreds of buildings.

    Editor: Apurva

    (Header image: The collapsed section of the highway in Dabu County, Guangdong province, May 1, 2024. VCG)