At least 7 dead, 150 missing in Brazil dam collapse disaster

Death toll expected to rise as rescue teams scour town of Brumadinho for survivors, after disused dam at nearby iron-ore mine complex breaks apart ‘very violently’

Aerial view showing firemen looking for people in heavy machinery (L and R) and a locomotive (C) after the collapse of a dam near the town of Brumadinho in southeastern Brazil, on January 25, 2019. (Douglas Magno / AFP)
Aerial view showing firemen looking for people in heavy machinery (L and R) and a locomotive (C) after the collapse of a dam near the town of Brumadinho in southeastern Brazil, on January 25, 2019. (Douglas Magno / AFP)

BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AFP) — A collapse of a disused dam at an iron-ore mine complex in southeast Brazil killed at least seven people and left 150 missing, officials said, as they sought to evaluate the full scope of the disaster.

The tailings dam, owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale, broke apart “very violently, very suddenly,” sending a massive torrent of mud over the complex where 300 mine employees were working, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman told a news conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The deluge rumbled on to the nearby town of Brumadinho, located southwest of the city of Belo Horizonte, cutting a swath through vegetation, farmland and roads, and impeding access to the area.

The death toll was expected to go higher, as rescue teams scoured through the big disaster zone overnight into Saturday.

Brazil’s new government led by President Jair Bolsonaro reacted to its first big emergency since taking office early this month by launching disaster coordination between the defense, mining and environment ministries and authorities in the affected state of Minas Gerais.

Bolsonaro and his defense minister were to fly over the zone on Saturday. His environment minister raced to the area late Friday.

An AFP photographer viewing the zone from the air described tractors, houses and a bridge submerged in mud, and emergency crews using earth-moving machinery to search for survivors.

Television images earlier showed helicopters being used to rescue people stuck in mud.

‘Human tragedy’

Schvartsman called the dam break “a human tragedy, because we’re talking about probably a large number of victims — we don’t know how many but we know it will be a high number.”

He said more than 100 of the mine’s employees had been located alive, but the rest were missing.

Brazil’s newly sworn-in President Jair Bolsonaro is pictured during his inauguration ceremony, at the Congress in Brasilia on January 1, 2019. (NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

Schvartsman, who had his two-year term renewed just last month by Vale’s board, said the it had been an “inactive dam” that was in the process of being decommissioned that burst apart.

Its contents — tailings, or mining byproducts mixed with water — cascaded into another dam, which overflowed, he said.

The liquid, brown mass — reportedly quantified at one million tons by Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency — barreled on towards Brumadinho, population 39,000, but did not deal it a direct hit.

Vale shares plunge

Shares in Vale plummeted eight percent in New York trading Friday. The Sao Paulo stock market was closed for a holiday.

Friday’s disaster recalled trauma from a 2015 dam break in a different part of the same state of Minas Gerais, in Mariana, in which 19 people died.

That accident three years ago released millions of tons of toxic iron waste along hundreds of kilometers (miles), causing what is considered the country’s worst environmental disaster. Vale was joint operator of that dam, along with the Anglo-Australian group BHP.

An AFP photographer said police had blocked access roads to Brumadinho on Friday after the disaster.

Aerial view taken after the collapse of a dam near the town of Brumadinho in southeastern Brazil, on January 25, 2019. – (Douglas Magno / AFP)

Civil defense officials said people living in low-lying areas in the town had been evacuated.

Vale issued a statement saying it had set up shelters for Brumadinho residents left homeless.

Brumadinho’s municipality issued an alert on social media warning residents to move away from the Paraopeba river that the dam had been holding back.

The town is best known to tourists for Inhotim, an outdoor contemporary art museum, which was evacuated as a precaution. The venue receives 35,000 visitors a month.

Most Popular
read more: