A massive search-and-rescue operation was underway Sunday in northern India for at least 140 people missing after part of a Himalayan glacier broke off, triggering an avalanche of rock, mud, water and debris that swept away a hydroelectric dam.
Video recorded by witnesses from across a valley showed a torrent of water and debris breaking through a dam that’s part of the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, more than 300 miles north of New Delhi.
“It came very fast. There was no time to alert anyone,” local resident Sanjay Singh Rana told Reuters. “I felt that even we would be swept away.”
Many of those missing are believed to be workers at the dam. Police say that nine bodies have been recovered so far and that at least 140 people are missing. The chief minister of India’s Uttarakhand state, Trivendra Singh Rawat, told reporters that the figure could rise.
The disaster began around 10:45 a.m. local time when part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off in an ecologically fragile area of Uttarakhand, an Indian state bordering Nepal and China, high in the Himalayas. Environmentalists have long cautioned against building dams and power plants there, because it’s so prone to landslides and flooding.
In 2013, record monsoon rainfall triggered floods that killed about 6,000 people in what was dubbed the “Himalayan tsunami” because it swept away homes, roads and bridges in Uttarakhand.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the glacier to break away early Sunday. While climate change has contributed to the shrinkage of Himalayan glaciers, February is still winter in Uttarakhand and not typically the time of year when its glaciers melt.
There was at least one joyful rescue Sunday: Indian journalists shared footage on social media of disaster relief workers pulling a man out from a tunnel where he’d been buried alive. The victim throws his arms up in the air in celebration and then falls forward into the mud, as people clap and cheer around him.
By nightfall, villages had been evacuated downstream from the broken Rishiganga dam, along tributaries of the mighty Ganges River. The neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, also put riverside areas on high alert.
“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
The Nanda Devi glacier lies near a peak of the same name, which at 25,643 feet is India’s second-highest mountain. Its name means “blessed goddess,” and the mountain itself is worshipped in local Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The surrounding Nanda Devi National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.