Video footage on social media showed frantic miners racing uphill to escape as a towering pile of black waste cascaded into a turquoise lake, churning up a tsunami-like wave of mud. Photos showed rows of dead bodies laid out on a hill, covered by a tarpaulin.
In a statement posted online on Thursday evening, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said military officers would continue the rescue efforts.
Local media have reported scores of people killed in the area in recent years, many of them freelance “jade pickers” who scour tailings – the residue from mining – for stones that have been missed by larger operators.
Maung Khaing, a 38-year-old miner from the area who witnessed the accident, said he spotted a towering pile of waste that looked on the verge of collapse and was about to take a picture when people began shouting ‘run, run!’.
“Within a minute, all the people at the bottom (of the hill) just disappeared…,” he told Reuters by phone. “I feel empty in my heart. I still have goosebumps… There were people stuck in the mud shouting for help but no one could help them.”
The area is 950 kilometres north of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, and is the centre of the world’s biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry.
The government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to clean up the industry when it took power in 2016, but activists say little has changed.
Official sales of jade in Myanmar were worth €671million ($1billion) in 2016-17, according to data published by the government as part of an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
But experts believe the true value of the industry, which mainly exports to China, is much larger.
Accidents at poorly regulated mining sites causing multiple casualties are not rare. A landslide in the area killed 116 people in 2015
The victims are normally freelance miners who settle near giant mounds of discarded earth that have been mined in bulk by heavy machinery. The miners, who scavenge for bits of jade, usually work and live at the base of the mounds, which are particularly unstable during the rainy season.
Rights group Global Witness called Thursday’s accident a “preventable tragedy” and said Suu Kyi’s administration had failed to implement promised reforms to curb “illicit and rapacious mining practices”.