The death toll rises to at least 48 as the search for the collapsed highway in southern China continues

BEIJING (AP) — The death toll from a highway collapse in southeastern China rose to 48 Thursday as searchers dug through a treacherous and mountainous area for a second day.

One side of the four-lane highway in Meizhou city collapsed around 2 a.m. Wednesday after a month of heavy rains in Guangdong province. Twenty-three vehicles fell down a steep slope, some catching fire when they burst into flames. Construction cranes were used to lift the burned and mangled vehicles.

Officials in Meizhou said three other people remained unidentified pending DNA testing. It was not immediately clear whether they had been killed, which would bring the death toll to 51. Another 30 people had non-life-threatening injuries.

The search was still ongoing, Meizhou Mayor Wang Hui said at a news conference late in the afternoon. No foreigners were found among the victims, he said.

The search is hampered by rain, land and gravel sliding down the slope. The disaster left a curved, earth-colored gash in the otherwise green forest landscape. Excavators have excavated a larger area on the slope.

“As some of the vehicles involved caught fire, the difficulty of the rescue operation has increased,” said Wen Yongdeng, Communist Party secretary of the Meizhou emergency management bureau.

“Most of the vehicles were buried in the ground during the collapse, with a large amount of soil on them,” he said.

He added that the prolonged heavy rains have saturated the soil in the area, “making it prone to secondary disasters during the rescue process.”

In the province where the roadway collapsed, more than 56 centimeters of rain has fallen in the past four weeks, more than four times as much as last year. Some villages in Meizhou were flooded in early April and the city has seen more rain in recent days.

Parts of Guangdong province have seen record rainfall and flooding, as well as hail, in the past two weeks. A tornado killed five people in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, during rain and hail storms last weekend.

The highway section collapsed on the first day of a five-day May Day holiday, when many Chinese travel at home and abroad.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said all Chinese regions should improve their monitoring and early warning measures and investigate any risks to ensure public safety and social stability, state broadcaster CCTV reported.