Japan rescuers fear Hiroshima landslide toll will more than double

The death toll from catastrophic landslides in western Japan could more than double, police said Friday, as the number of missing people rose to 52 in addition to the 39 confirmed dead. Dozens of homes were destroyed when mountainsides collapsed on the outskirts of Hiroshima on Wednesday, sending tonnes of mud, rocks and debris crashing into suburban communities. More than 4,000 people have now been ordered to evacuate their homes after forecasters warned more rain was on the way to already soaked hillsides, heaping misery on an area that has seen record downpours. Firefighters, police and soldiers had to abandon search efforts overnight because of the risk of further landfalls, wary of the death of a colleague killed in a secondary mudslide on Wednesday along with a small boy he was trying to carry to safety.

We initially counted only the people who were certain to be missing, such as those witnessed being carried away in gushing water. As we continued to investigate and assess the situation, the number rose.

A Hiroshima police spokesperson

Firefighters and soldiers are still keeping heavy machinery away from collapsed houses, preferring to remove debris by hand in the hope of finding survivors. But falling rain is complicating their task in an area where the hillsides are made of decomposed granite — a coarse sand-like material that is used for driveways and paths, but which occurs naturally in this part of Japan. Geologists say the rock is so weathered that it easily fractures into smaller chunks and becomes fragile when waterlogged. Heavy rains are expected to continue from Friday until Saturday evening, bringing with it the risk of further landslides.