Firefighters search mud after Brazil dam collapse; 60 people confirmed dead
BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian firefighters on Monday carefully moved over treacherous mud, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling, in search of survivors or bodies, four days after a dam collapse buried mine buildings and surrounding neighborhoods with iron ore waste.
The confirmed death toll rose to 60, with 292 people still missing according to the Minas Gerais state fire department. In an ominous sign, nobody was recovered alive Sunday, a stark difference from the first two days of the disaster, when helicopters were whisking people from the mud. The fire department said the expectation is the number of confirmed fatal victims will grow “exponentially” this Monday.
The slow speed of search efforts was due to the treacherous sea of reddish-brown mud that surged out when the mine dam breached Friday afternoon. It is up 24 feet (8 meters) deep in some places, and to avoid the danger of sinking and drowning searchers had to carefully walk around the edges or slowly crawl out onto the muck.
Beginning early Monday morning, rescue teams worked on areas where many bodies are expected to be found: the site of a bus and the Vale cafeteria, where many workers were eating lunch when the dam ruptured.
Helicopters looking for bodies were taking off and landing nonstop. On the ground, dozens of rescuers with tracking dogs were searching for bodies through the mountains of mud. The Associated Press witnessed a helicopter rescue of three bodies that arrived at the search center.
Rescue efforts were suspended about 10 hours Sunday because of fears that a second mine dam in the southeastern city of Brumadinho was at risk of failing. An estimated 24,000 people were told to get to higher ground, but by afternoon civil engineers said the second dam was no longer at risk.
Areas of water-soaked mud appeared to be drying out, which could help firefighters get to areas previously unreachable. Still, it was slow going for the search teams, and residents were on edge.
Some residents have taken matters into their own hands. Wagner Rogerio, 43, searched for childhood friends with no equipment or instructions.
“My family tells me I’m not a superhero and that I should go home. But the very least my friends deserve is a dignified burial,” he said with tears in his eyes.
More than 100 Israeli specialists equipped with specialized rescue technology joined the 200 Brazilian firefighters on Monday morning.
Throughout the weekend, there was mounting anger at the giant Vale mining company, which operated the mine, and questions rose about an apparent lack of an ahead of Friday’s collapse.
In an email, Vale told The Associated Press that the area has eight sirens, but “the speed in which the event happened made sounding an alarm impossible” when the dam burst.
Clamor for culpability was growing. Sen. Renan Calheiros on Sunday called for Vale’s board of directors to step down and on Monday, Attorney General Raquel Dodge told reporters that Vale executives could be held responsible.
Vale’s defense lawyer, Sergio Bermudes told the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper that the board will not step down, arguing that “no wrongdoing has been proven, much less blame.”
“Vale doesn’t see any decisive reasons indicating the company’s responsibility. There was no negligence, recklessness, or malpractice,” Bermudes said. “Why do dams break? There are several factors, and they will be subject to technical investigations.”
Over the weekend, courts froze about $3 billion from Vale assets for state emergency services and told the company to report on how they would help the victims.
Vale stocks fell 25 percent on Brazil’s B3 stock exchange on Monday morning.
The carpet of mining waste also raised fears of widespread environmental contamination and degradation.
According to Vale’s website, the waste is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a U.N. report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”
Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.
That disaster left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded nearby rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.