ZHENXIONG, Jan. 14 (Xinhua) -- Local authorities in southwest China's Yunnan Province have apologized to the families of 46 landslide victims for cremating the bodies without their approval, a rescue official said Monday.
The Zhenxiong County government has also ordered the local civil affairs bureau and funeral parlor to make a formal admission of error over the cremation.
A spokesman with the rescue and disaster relief headquarters in Zhenxiong County said the cremations were carried out over fears that the bodies might spread disease if left in the open for a long time.
Zhou Chengwu, a manager with the county's funeral parlor, said the bodies had to be handled within 24 hours due to limited facilities.
Zhou said the funeral parlor, founded in 1979, was undergoing renovations and they had to rent freezers to store the remains. "All we could get were six or seven freezers, which was far from enough," he said.
Many of the bodies retrieved from the mud were badly damaged, which could have triggered more psychological pain if the families saw them, the spokesman said.
The unauthorized cremations triggered protests from about 40 family members of landslide victims.
People gathered along the road to the landslide rescue and disaster relief headquarters on Sunday night, blocking the passage of dozens of vehicles, a county official Zhu Henghui said Monday.
The crowd did not disperse until 2 a.m. Monday, Zhu said.
As of 7 p.m., no more protestors had gathered.
The landslide, which occurred in Gaopo Village, Zhenxiong County, on Friday, killed 46 villagers and injured another two.
Rescuers recovered the bodies within 28 hours of the landslide, and they used their bare hands to retrieve the remains and give the victims their "final dignity."
County government officials had promised to handle the bodies in accordance with the families' wishes. But authorities had cremated all the bodies by Sunday, fueling anger among the victims' families.
According to tradition in the Yi ethnicity-dominated village, the dead are usually buried, not cremated.
"I rushed home to see my parents for the last time. Still, I failed to see them," said Gaopo villager Wang Fazhen as he stood in front of a tent meant for temporary shelter with a baby on his back. He lost 27 family members in the landslide.
Most of the victims' family members work in cities and were not there at the time of the disaster. They said they did not even have a chance to say goodbye to their deceased relatives because of the unapproved cremations.
Meanwhile, netizens suspect the government is hiding something, and have criticized it for depriving the dead of their "final dignity."
"What I want now is simply a detailed and accurate explanation," said Luo Yuanju, who lost 14 family members in the tragedy.
NATURAL OR MAN-MADE?
Many netizens and families of the victims do not accept the government's explanation that the landslide was triggered by continuous rain and snow.
Some villagers believe the landslide may have been triggered by a gas explosion, and they doubt the experts' conclusion that the coal mine boundary was 500 meters away from the landslide.
"The mining area is right beneath the landslide," a coal miner in Gaopo said, as quoted by media on Monday.
Witnesses told Xinhua they saw "earth and rocks sprayed up into the air" when the landslide occurred. At the same time, some other villagers said they had not been to the scene and only heard about the "explosion" from others.
Lei Chuying, deputy head of Zhenxiong County government, used several points to deny that there had been an explosion, including the point that no coal fragments were found in the sprayed earth.
Many villagers said they could not understand the official explanation and requested more investigation and more easy-to-understand explanations.
"This year saw little rain and snow. Why hasn't there been a landslide in other years?" asked Zhao Mingcai, who lost nine family members in the landslide.
Wang Shijun, another person who lost family in the landslide, said a big crack appeared before the landslide. "Big enough to swallow a bull."
However, some villagers said the crack was 1 meter wide and some said a half meter wide, while others said there was no crack.
No geological disasters have happened in the history of this area, Liu Jianhua, mayor of Zhaotong City that administers Zhenxiong, told Xinhua.
No hidden dangers had been discovered in previous troubleshooting tasks, and no signs had appeared prior to the disaster, Liu said.