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India – Rescuers search for survivors

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Rescuers scouring flood-ravaged neighbourhoods and outlying villages found dozens more bodies Friday, pushing the death toll from record monsoon rains in western India to almost 750, officials said. Rescuers were searching vast areas of Maharashtra state, battered this week by deadly rains, said N. Nayar, an official at the government’s emergency control room in Mumbai, India’s financial hub and the worst-hit area.

“The death toll is 749 now, including 376 in Mumbai alone,” said M. Deshpande, assistant director at the control room.

Most deaths were caused by collapsing walls, drownings and electrocutions, he said.

At least 15 people, including seven children, died late Thursday in a Mumbai shanty stampede set off by rumours of a dam bursting, the officials said. More than 25 others were injured.

Officials were driving around seaside neighbourhoods announcing over loudspeakers there was no truth to rumours of a tsunami, storm or a breach in a local dam.

“Don’t go by word of mouth. Don’t believe in rumours,” city Police Commissioner A.N. Roy said in a message to citizens. Police arrested 10 men for spreading rumours.

On Tuesday, the city was hit by an unprecedented deluge of up to 94 centimetres of rain – the heaviest rainfall since India began keeping weather records in 1846. Much of it came over a few hours, transforming roads into fierce rivers and causing landslides that buried dozens of people and cut off villages.

The rains stretched into Wednesday, paralyzing Mumbai and devastating huge areas, but ended Thursday, leaving an overcast sky.

The government imposed a mandatory holiday Thursday, ordering all workers to stay home and forcing the closure of banks and the Bombay Stock Exchange. The Stock Exchange reopened Friday.

In the northern Mumbai suburb of Saki Naka, relief workers and survivors searched the ruins of a shanty crushed when a water-soaked hill collapsed on top of it. At least 110 people were killed and more than 45 others were missing and presumed dead.

Their faces covered with green masks, relief workers used spades to search for survivors as cranes lifted twisted wooden and tin debris. Elsewhere, navy divers used inflatable rafts to reach areas cut off by water while soldiers and civil defence workers trudged to outlying villages, digging in search of the living and the dead.

“It was terrible to pull out little babies from under boulders and mud,” said firefighter S. Shinde, wiping his brow with mud-caked hands.

In Mumbai, most victims drowned, were crushed by falling walls or were electrocuted.

Wednesday morning, after the deluge, the government warned people to remain in their offices or homes. But for some the warnings came too late.

“I lost count of the number of people who were electrocuted. There were clusters of people who stepped on exposed wires,” said civic relief worker Arya B.

By Friday, mobile phone services were restored, but landline phone service was still spotty in some areas. Some neighbourhoods remained without electricity. Most roads had been cleared of the hundreds of cars abandoned after they stalled in the rain.

Knee-deep water remained in some neighbourhoods, but all main roads were clear. Rail and air services returned to normal Thursday night.

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