Chinese authorities raided the offices of a company managing the dump site where a killer landslide left 76 people missing, while government records showed the firm was not qualified to do the job.
A Reuters reporter saw police at two premises of Shenzhen Yixianglong Investment Development on Tuesday and no sign of employees.
At least one body has been recovered from the rubble after a giant deluge of mud and construction waste from the overfull dump site buried 33 buildings at an industrial park in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen on Sunday.
Thousands of workers were using sensors, drones and earth excavators at the 380,000-square metre disaster site, trying to reach possible survivors trapped under mud up to 10 metres deep. Overnight, the area was lit up with floodlights to allow uninterrupted rescue operations.
It was the second major man-made disaster in China in four months - in August, at least 160 people were killed in massive chemical blasts in the northern port city of Tianjin.
With growing worries about China's industrial safety standards and lack of oversight, Premier Li Keqiang ordered an investigation within hours into the mudslide in Shenzhen, a town that has boomed with the breakneck growth in the world's second-largest economy.
A central government meeting in Beijing overseen by President Xi Jinping that ended Tuesday said safety should be the "first priority" in China's city development and management, Xinhua news agency said. "Safety awareness should permeate every aspect of urban work," it said.
Government records show that a company called Shenzhen Luwei Property Management won the right to manage the dump site within the Hengtaiyu industrial park in Shenzhen's Guangming New District in 2013.
But a company official told Reuters the rights were sold to another firm, Shenzhen Yixianglong Investment Development, for 750,000 yuan (S$162,657), before even winning the bid. "They sought us out and contacted us first," said the employee, who said her name was Liu.
However, Yixianglong's business description registered with the government does not include logistics management as one of its areas of operation. This was a pre-requirement to bid for managing the site, according to bid documents.
A contract document between Luwei and Yixianglong, obtained by Reuters, showed that Yixianglong agreed to assume responsibility in the event of an accident.
Calls to Yixianglong went unanswered.
Shenzhen police declined to comment. The Shenzhen government did not respond to a request for comment.
POLICE WARN REPORTER
At Yixianglong's registered office, an apartment in a Shenzhen residential suburb, a Reuters reporter saw police taking pictures inside the room but was quickly warned away.
Officers were also in the hallway and an adjacent apartment where some of them were standing over a woman crouching over the floor with her head in her hands. It was not clear if the woman was linked to the company in any way or had been arrested.
Police told the reporter to leave the building, and that the company had already moved. "This does not concern you," one of the officers told Reuters.
A separate office on the ground floor of the building bearing the company's name was empty and locked, with wilted plants inside.
At a second site for the company, an office building in an industrial estate, police in the lobby prevented a Reuters reporter from going upstairs. There were no signs of any employees.
The government had warned the dump site, which was supposed to be temporary, was unsafe. In July, the Guangming New District City Management Bureau said on its website it had asked the management company to clarify who was in charge of designing the dump.
In September, it said the site was not supposed to take any more waste and that guards were to be posted to prevent illegal dumping of mud.
Residents have told Reuters that waste continued to be dumped at the site. "It was definitely dangerous," said Jiang Xuemin, 44, who lived and worked inside the industrial park. "Every day there were trucks moving mud, every day there were hundreds of them, truck after truck after truck," she said."They were always there, blocking the roads, so many of them." The bureau office did not answer telephone calls.
Besides new buildings, a network of subway lines is being built in Shenzhen, and large volumes of earth are being excavated and dumped at waste sites.
According to state television, 76 people were still missing and believed buried in the rubble.