RAIPUR, India - The death toll from the collapse of a giant chimney in central India rose to 36 on Friday, with many more bodies expected to be pulled from the debris, a local government official said.
A team of more than 300 people has been working at the site for over two days to remove a huge pile of smashed concrete that covers the site where a partially built chimney once stood.
"We have recovered 36 bodies, many more are trapped below," senior government officer Ashok Agarwal told AFP on Friday.
The deadly accident occurred on Wednesday when the 100-metre (330-foot) structure at a power plant in Korba town in Chhattisgarh state collapsed in stormy weather.
"There is very little hope of finding anyone alive below the debris but we will continue the rescue operation on Friday," Agarwal said.
"Thirty earth-moving machines have been pressed into service to clear the debris and rescue the trapped people,"
A top union official at the company building the chimney - Balco, a subsidiary of London-listed resources giant Vedanta Plc - told AFP Thursday he feared that 100 workers had been killed.
Agarwal said the government was investigating whether Balco was using low quality materials for the building, as charged by trade union officials.
Vivek Sharma, a senior police officer investigating the disaster, said the search and rescue operation would continue for at least three days, despite the rapidly diminishing hope of finding any survivors.
"It's a mammoth task involving the clearing of tonnes of debris and we haven't even reached the base of the concrete yet," he said.
According to Sharma, police were looking for several officials involved in the chimney construction who appear to have absconded.
"We are trying to trace them to get a list of people who were working at the site," he said.
The rescue effort has been hampered by the lack of a reliable employee list, which has resulted in widely differing estimates for the number of workers who might have been trapped in the collapse.
A full investigation would be carried out, including the questioning of senior Balco officials, with the possibility of criminal charges if there was evidence of negligence, Sharma said.
"For the moment, however, our focus is to find the bodies, and hand them over to their families," he added. Minor construction site accidents are relatively common in India, where health and safety rules are routinely flouted, though this is one of the worst in recent history.
In other incidents, a partially built bridge on the flagship Delhi Metro project collapsed in July, killing five, and there was also an accident during the construction of a flyover in the southern city of Hyderabad. Balco is 51-percent-owned unit by Vedanta, which focuses its business activities on India. The Indian government holds the remaining 49 percent.
Balco has been expanding its aluminium operations in the mineral-rich state, a hotbed of the Maoist insurgency that has left thousands of people dead since the late 1960s.