Brumadinho (Brazil): The death toll from the collapse of a dam containing mine waste in southeastern Brazil rose to 40, Saturday as rescuers flying in helicopters and working in deep mud uncovered more bodies.
An estimated 300 people were still missing and authorities expected the death toll to increase during a search made more challenging by intermittent rains.
Scores of families in the city desperately awaited word on their loved ones, and Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais state, promised that those responsible ‘would be punished’.
Employees of the mining complex owned and operated by Brazilian mining company ‘Vale’ were eating lunch Friday afternoon when the dam gave way, unleashing a sea of reddish-brown mud that knocked over and buried several structures of the company and surrounding areas. The level of devastation quickly led President Jair Bolsonaro and other officials to describe it as a ‘tragedy’.
The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and an occupied Vale administrative office.
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 eight kilometres 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, adding that she had a feeling ‘that this was the end of my life’.
In addition to the 40 bodies recovered as of Saturday afternoon, 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. Company officials also had said that 100 workers were accounted for.
The toll will rise as many more are still missing. Fire officials at one point estimated that close to 300 people were working when the dam gave way. ‘Vale’ CEO Fabio Schvartsman said he did not know what caused the collapse.
For many, hope was fading to anguish. “I don’t think he is alive,” said Joao Bosco, speaking of his cousin, Jorge Luis Ferreira, who worked for Vale.
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.