Desperate search for Brazil mudslide survivors

Mariana (Brazil) (AFP) - Rescuers will spend a fourth day Sunday scouring for survivors beneath an avalanche of mud and mining sludge that buried a village in southeast Brazil, killing at least two people and leaving 28 missing.

Hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and civil defense workers are frantically combing through the viscous mass that swallowed everything in its path for signs of life.

The increasingly desperate search was suspended at dusk Saturday because "it is a high-risk area that is difficult to access," said Duarte Goncalves Junior, mayor of the nearby city of Mariana.

The tragedy occurred when waste reservoirs at the partly Australian-owned Samarco iron ore mine burst open, unleashing a sea of muck that flattened the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues on Thursday.

Since then, the tidal wave of sludge has continued its destructive advance, leveling a neighborhood and the main plaza in the town of Barra Longa, 60 kilometers (35 miles) away, but causing no loss of life there, a spokesman for the mayor's office told AFP.

The cascade of debris began with the collapse of a dike at a reservoir holding mining waste, which spilled into an adjoining valley.

A short time later, a water reservoir broke, and the mass of liquid sludge swept over Bento Rodrigues.

"There was a horrible noise and we saw the mud approaching. We ran for it. It is a miracle that we are still alive," said Valeria de Souza, 20, with a baby in her arms and tears in her eyes.

But not everyone was so lucky and families of the missing were desperately seeking news of their loved ones, amid widely disparate official information.

Authorities have given contradictory tolls of the dead and missing in and around Bento Rodrigues, which has a population of about 620.

The head of Mariana's firefighting force, Adao Severino Junior, had said that there were at least 17 dead, adding to the confusion.

But the official toll was later revised to at least two dead and 28 missing, said Goncalves Junior.

Mining giant BHP Billiton, joint owners of the mine with the Brazilian company Vale, said it was offering support.

"Words cannot describe the impact of this tragedy on the employees and contractors of Samarco, their families and the community," said BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser.

"Our thoughts are with the people of Samarco, the affected community and with the people of Brazil."

- Child slipped away -

Meanwhile, flyers were circulated with the picture of a missing five-year old named Emanuele, who slipped from her father's arms as he ran ahead of the torrent carrying her and her two-year-old brother, the newspaper O Globo said.

"We saw him coming with the two children, but he wasn't able to hold on to them," Marlon Celio, 19, a neighbor, told the newspaper.

"We helped grab him, but lost the girl."

According to a list released by the mayor, there are five missing children.

No warning sirens went off, company officials say. Instead, they called the civil defense authorities, as well as some families and community leaders, to warn them.

Panicked villagers ran screaming toward high ground and from there watched as their houses were swallowed in a river of mud.

Besides leveling everything in its path, the avalanche caused "enormous environmental damage," said Carlos Ferreira Pinto, an investigator with the Minas Gerais state prosecutor's office.

The local Mariana miners' union said the sludge was toxic, but Samarco said it was "inert" and contained no harmful chemicals.

The head of Samarco's emergency planning operations, Germano Silva Lopes, told a news conference the company had detected a tremor, but no anomalies in the dams before they burst.