Brazil dam collapse: Hopes fade for hundreds missing as search suspended in Brumadinho

Adam Forrest

Hopes are fading for hundreds of people still missing after a dam collapse at an iron ore mine in Brazil, after officials suspended the search for survivors amid fears a nearby dam was at risk of breaking as well.

Authorities on Sunday are evacuating 24,000 people in several neighbourhoods within range of the B6 dam, owned by the same company as the dam that broke on Friday.

Anger erupted over the increasing likelihood many of the Vale company workers and residents living near the mining site are dead. The death toll stands at 34, but around 300 other people are estimated to be missing.

Rescue teams had been searching for survivors at the facility near the city of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais state following the collapse of a dam holding back mine waste, sending out waves of mud for several miles.

Throughout Saturday, scores of families awaited word on their loved ones as Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais, admitted that most recovery efforts would entail pulling out bodies.

“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 for the mining company for 20 years. “My hope is that they be honest. I want news, even if it’s bad.”

Authorities with the Minas Gerais fire department said on Saturday that 23 people had been found and taken to hospital.

Vale said in a statement on Saturday that while 100 of its workers were accounted for, more than 200 workers were still missing. Local fire officials estimated the total number missing at close to 300.

Avimar de Melo Barcelas, the mayor of Brumadinho, said he also expected the death toll to rise as search and rescue operations continued.

Relatives of missing people wait for news after dam disaster (Reuters)

As Brazil’s attorney general promised an investigation into the cause of the disaster, many families expressed anger over Vale’s safety record.

Environmental groups blamed a lack of regulations and pledged to scrutinise the actions of new president Jair Bolsonaro – who promised to deregulate the industry during his election campaign.

On Saturday, state courts and the Minas Gerais justice ministry froze around $1.5bn (around £1.2bn) from Vale assets to fund state emergency efforts and told the company to present a report detailing how they would help victims.

The company’s CEO, Fabio Schvartsman, said he did not know what caused the collapse – but attorney general Raquel Dodge said “someone is definitely at fault”. She noted there were another 600 mines in the state of Minas Gerais alone classified as being at risk of rupture.

Daily newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported on Saturday that the dam’s mining complex was issued an expedited licence to expand in December due to “decreased risk”. Preservation groups in the area alleged that the approval was unlawful.

Sueli de Oliveira Costa, who has not heard from her husband since Friday, had harsh words for the mining company. “Vale destroyed Mariana and now they’ve destroyed Brumadinho,” she said.

President Jair Bolsonaro surveys area buried by mud in Brumadinho (AP)

Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes. Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed countless fish.

The rivers of mining waste from the latest disaster also raised fears of widespread contamination. According to Vale’s website, the waste 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”.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, said a delegation of 130 specialists has left for Brazil to assist the search and rescue operation. Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said his delegation includes K-9 forces, firefighters and a special underwater unit.

The military is responding to an order from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered the aid to his close ally, Mr Bolsonaro.

Additional reporting by agencies