Death toll at 40 in Brazil dam collapse

BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AP) – Hope that loved ones had survived a tsunami of iron ore mine waste from a dam collapse in Brazil was turning to anguish and anger over the increasing likelihood that many of the hundreds of people missing had died.

By Saturday night, when authorities called off rescue efforts until day break, the death toll stood at 40 dead with up to 300 people estimated to be missing. Throughout the day, helicopters flew low over areas buried by mud and firefighters worked to get to structures by digging.

“I’m angry. There is no way I can stay calm,” said Sonia Fatima da Silva, as she tried to get information about her son, who had worked at Vale mining company for 20 years. “My hope is that they be honest. I want news, even if it’s bad.”

Da Silva said she last spoke to her son before he went to work last Friday, when around midday a dam holding back mine waste collapsed, sending waves of mud for kilometres (miles) and burying much in its path.

Employees of the mining complex owned and operated by Brazilian mining company Vale were eating lunch Friday afternoon when the dam gave way. Throughout last Saturday, scores of families in the city of Brumadinho desperately awaited word on their loved ones as Romeu Zema, Governor of Minas Gerais state, said that at this point most recovery efforts would entail pulling out bodies.

A road is blocked after a dam collapsed near Brumadinho, Brazil. – AP

The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and an occupied Vale administrative office. Last Saturday, rooftops poked above an extensive field of the mud, which also cut off roads. After the dam collapse, some were evacuated from Brumadinho. Other residents of the affected areas barely escaped with their lives.

“I saw all the mud coming down the hill, snapping the trees as it descended. It was a tremendous noise,” said a tearful Simone Pedrosa, from the neighbourhood of Parque Cachoeira, about 5 miles from where the dam collapsed.

Pedrosa, 45, and her parents dashed to their car and drove to the highest point in the neighbourhood. “If we had gone down the other direction, we would have died,” Pedrosa said.

“I cannot get that noise out of my head,” she said. “It’s a trauma … I’ll never forget.”

In addition to the 40 bodies recovered as of Saturday night, 23 people were hospitalised, said authorities with the Minas Gerais fire department. There had been some signs of hope earlier Saturday when authorities found 43 more people alive.

The company said in a statement last Saturday that while 100 workers were accounted for, more than 200 workers were still missing. Fire officials at one point estimated the total number at close to 300.

Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said he did not know what caused the collapse. About 300 employees were working when it happened.

For many, hope was evaporating.

“I don’t think he is alive,” said Joao Bosco, speaking of his cousin, Jorge Luis Ferreira, who worked for Vale.

“Right now, I can only hope for a miracle of God.”

Vanilza Sueli Oliveira described the wait for news of her nephew as “distressing, maddening.”

“Time is passing,” she said. “It’s been 24 hours already. … I just don’t want to think that he is under the mud.”

The rivers of mining waste also raised fears of widespread contamination.

According to Vale’s website, the waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a UN report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”

Over the weekend, state courts and the justice ministry in the state of Minas Gerais ordered the freezing of about USD1.5 billion from Vale assets for state emergency services and told the company to present a report about how they would help victims.

Brazil’s Attorney General Raquel Dodge promised to investigate, saying “someone is definitely at fault.” Dodge noted there are 600 mines in the state of Minas Gerais alone that are classified as being at risk of rupture.