MOSCOW — A valley in Russia's North Ossetia region lay entombed Saturday after a section of Caucasus glacier broke off and plowed through, scooping up trees, truck-sized boulders and buildings in a thunderous 20-mile wave of destruction.
When the avalanche stopped, icy debris as deep as 50 yards covered at least one village and left one of Russia's best-known movie actors missing, along with 27 members of his crew. Authorities conducting a massive rescue operation late Saturday--24 hours after the slide--estimated that as many as 100 people could still be missing or dead.
They included 17 people, six of them children, whose homes were destroyed in the village of Nizhny Karmadon, said Lt. Gen. Ivan Teterin, the Emergency Situations Ministry official heading the rescue efforts. Also unaccounted for were hikers in the area and members of the film crew of actor-director Sergei Bodrov Jr. Bodrov, a star of the movie "Prisoner of the Mountains" and two emblematic crime thrillers of Russia's roaring 1990s--"Brother" and "Brother II"--was in the area working on a new film.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, speaking in Moscow, declared the avalanche "truly a great disaster." Putin told reporters: "The main task is to find the missing people and restore the region's infrastructure--I mean electric lines and vital necessities."
The avalanche began around 9 p.m. Friday, said Ruslan Mutsuyev, a duty officer in North Ossetia for the Emergency Situations Ministry.
"People were already in their houses. Some vacationers were in their tents too. Some people had gone up there in their cars and trucks for a weekend at this picturesque site and were sleeping in their cars or trucks," where they would have been caught unaware, he said.
Afterward, Mutsuyev said, the area between the communities of Karmadon and Dargavs was inundated by ice and mud.
"Our men flew over the area several times in helicopters, and they discovered that the slide buried part of the Karmadon village called Nizhny Karmadon, where there were about 10 houses in which about 30 people lived," he said.
Mutsuyev said the avalanche also destroyed a rest home where people took mineral baths.
"Mounds of ice and mud are so thick that in places it is 50 yards deep, if not deeper," he said.
As the scale of the disaster became evident Saturday, Russia mobilized emergency workers from the regional center of Vladikavkaz.
"We have 143 rescue workers on the spot and dozens of trucks and bulldozers. But unfortunately, we have had to suspend the operation for the night," said Nickolai Shamakov, another officer for the emergency ministry in North Ossetia, speaking by telephone late Saturday. "It is very dangerous on the slippery ice in the mountains in the dark."
Mutsuyev called the catastrophe unprecedented in his experience.
"I have lived in this area for 53 years now, and I don't remember a tragedy like this. Up to now, it has been a very safe area," he said.
For rescuers, there exists the ongoing danger that the ice could shift again, causing a new avalanche.
Although Mutsuyev said he was not giving up hope for more survivors, he believed that the outlook was grim.
"Most people would have been taken by complete surprise.... Hundreds of rescue workers have been clearing the site all day, and so far they haven't found any bodies," he said.
Authorities estimated that the glacier section that broke off was 500 feet deep and that as it crashed down it exceeded 60 mph. The main part of the avalanche came to rest on the Gizel-Karmadon highway, about six miles from Vladikavkaz.
Teterin said one man from near Nizhny Karmadon was found dead. A spokesman for North Ossetian President Alexander S. Dzasokhov said four bodies were found, the Interfax news agency reported.
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.