19 Brazilians missing after dams burst

Lars Hagberg/CP

Lars Hagberg/CP

MARIANA, Brazil – Searchers used small airplanes and a drone Saturday to look for 19 people confirmed as missing following the burst of two dams inside an iron ore mine, while authorities lowered the official death count to one.

The Fire Department said officials were now not sure that a second body, which was found 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the site of the accident, was a victim. It said those missing included 13 mine workers and six residents of a nearby village that was overrun with mud and water. Earlier Saturday, 23 people had been listed as missing.

Bras Azevedo, secretary of social defence in the nearby city of Mariana, told The Associated Press that authorities had to be cautious in sorting out exactly how many people were missing or dead. “There are still people in isolated areas; they could be the ones we are looking for,” he said.

The flood of mud came without warning Thursday afternoon when two dams breached for reasons that investigators had not yet determined.

People in the small village of Bento Rodrigues downhill from the dams said a deafening clap was the only hint they got that a sea of viscous, clay-red mud was about to hit. The sound of the two dams bursting at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil’s central Minas Gerais state sent the approximately 600 residents running for higher ground.

“When I went outside there were already people running uphill saying the dam burst,” Joaquim Dutra said. “All I did was close my house and run to the top.”

Dirce da Silva Mendes, a mother of two, told a story heard repeatedly from survivors.

“We lost a lot of things,” she said Saturday. “At the moment we removed the last household appliance, the mud had taken over the whole house. It also destroyed our orange trees, our fig trees. It is all gone. It was so quick.”

The accident sent some 62 million cubic meters of water and iron ore leftovers flooding into the village, which is some 4 miles (7 kilometres) downhill from the mine, officials said Friday.

Since Friday, hundreds of people have taken shelter in a gym in Mariana as donations of food, clothing and mattresses pour in. Many of the survivors have injuries to their feet, from fleeing their houses barefoot and trekking through the devastated terrain and then onto scorching asphalt.

The public prosecutor’s office has said it may file criminal charges against Samarco, which is jointly owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale and Australia’s BHP Billiton, over the facility’s lack of an emergency siren.

But Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi said that as far as he knows Brazilian law doesn’t require an emergency alarm for dam failures and that authorities had approved the company’s emergency response plan. He also worked to dispel fears that the mud contained toxins that could contaminate the land and area rivers.

The mayor’s office in Mariana said Samarco officials assured them the mining company would pay for the damages, but did not provide details.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.