Around 300 missing, many feared dead in Brazil dam collapse
January 26 2019 07:15 PM
Aerial view showing firemen looking for people in heavy machinery (L and R) and a locomotive (C) aft
Aerial view showing firemen looking for people in heavy machinery (L and R) and a locomotive (C) after the collapse of a dam which belonged to Brazil's giant mining company Vale

AFP/Brumadinho, Brazil

Nearly 300 people were missing, many feared dead, on Saturday after a dam collapsed at a mine in southeastern Brazil, according to officials and the mine owner, corporate giant Vale.

Emergency services said they had recovered nine bodies from the massive muddy mess left by the disaster, which struck Friday at the Vale mine in Brumadinho, near the city of Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state.

Dozens of helicopters were being used in the operation because the massive gush of mud released by the dam had engulged buildings, vehicles and roads with thick, treacherous sludge.

The state fire service leading the efforts said the latest count was 299 people missing, all of them mine workers listed by Vale.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro flew over the devastated zone, but said nothing to reporters in Belo Horizonte when he returned from the flight.

He instead took to Twitter to say it was ‘difficult to not be emotional before this scene.’ All was being done to care for survivors and ‘determine the facts, to demand justice and prevent new tragedies,’ he added.

The military said it was mobilizing 1,000 troops, including sniffer dogs, to the affected zone under orders from Bolsonaro.

The disaster was the first big emergency faced by Bolsonaro and his government since he took office in early January, and perhaps one of the biggest disasters in Brazil's history.

The full scope of the damage was still unclear.

- Vale shares plunge -

As workers gathered in an administrative area for lunch at the Vale mine Friday, the area was suddenly engulfed by millions of tons of muddy trailings -- a watery byproduct of the iron-ore mining operations -- unleashed when the dam broke.

The reservoir, 42 years old and 86 meters (282 feet) high, had been in the process of being decommissioned, and Vale said it had recently passed structural safety tests.

After overflowing a second dam, the vast muddy mass barrelled down toward Brumaldinho, population 39,000, but only glanced along it before spearing its way through vegetation and farmland, smashing houses and swallowing tractors and roads in its way.

Vale's CEO Fabio Schvartsman and Minas Gerais Governor Romeu Zema both expressed pessimism, warning the toll could rise.

‘From now, the odds are minimal (to find more people alive) and it is most likely we will recover only bodies,’ Zema told reporters late Friday.

In Rio, Schvartsman spoke of a ‘human tragedy.’

‘We're talking about probably a large number of victims -- we don't know how many but we know it will be a high number,’ he said.

Vale shares plummeted on the New York stock exchange Friday, closing eight percent lower.

The mining company, one of the world's biggest, was also involved in a 2015 mine collapse elsewhere in Minas Gerais that claimed 19 lives and is regarded as the country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

Minas Gerais officials obtained a court order blocking Vale's bank account in the state to the tune of $270 million, money that would used for victim relief, according to the G1 news website.

- 'Where are our relatives?' -

‘Where are our relatives?’ wailed Raquel Cristina, one of several people demanding information about their missing kin in the mud-hit area.

‘My five-year-old nephew is asking me if his dad died. What do I tell him?’ asked another, Olivia Rios.

Some of the firefighters used earth-moving machinery to dig down to engulfed dwellings.

Would-be rescue volunteers were urged to stay away because of the slippery, perilous mud. Media were pressed not to use drones to avoid collisions with search and rescue helicopters.

Walter Morais, a member of the Red Cross team sent to the disaster zone, told AFP that his relief group ‘will begin humanitarian actions helping people who were rescued and are homeless.’

- Past dam collapses -

The disaster recalled trauma from the 2015 dam break near Mariana, in Minas Gerais.

That accident released millions of tons of toxic iron waste along hundreds of kilometers (miles). Vale jointly operated that dam with Anglo-Australian group BHP.

The Brazil office of Greenpeace, the environmental activist group, said the dam break was ‘a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies’.

Such incidents ‘are not accidents but environmental crimes that must be investigated, punished and repaired,’ it added.

While the death toll has yet to be established in Brazil, it looked likely that the disaster at the mine could rank among the worst recorded.

In September 2008, a moving wall of mud and rocks from an illegal iron ore mine slammed into the Chinese town of Taoshi, in northern Shanxi province, killing 262 people.

In February 1994 in South Africa, in Merriespruit, a mine collapse at a gold mine caused 17 deaths.

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