An Israeli Defense Force search-and-rescue team landed in Brazil late Sunday evening to join forces with local rescue crews who are searching for hundreds of people missing in the wake of a catastrophic dam collapse.
The Civil Defense office in Minais Gerais state on Sunday raised the confirmed death toll to 58, with up to 300 people still unaccounted for following the avalanche of iron ore waste from a mine Friday.
The Israeli team of some 130 conscripted and reservist soldiers landed on a specially chartered El Al flight at Belo Horizonte International Airport in South Western Brazil late Sunday.
The team was greeted on the runway by the governor of Minas Gerais, Romeu Zema. The heads of the delegation immediately began talks with local officials in charge of the rescue to coordinate efforts, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The delegation is mostly made up of military search-and-rescue specialists and medical officers and also includes members of the Israeli Navy’s Yaltam scuba unit, as the military expected a significant amount of underwater missions in the flooded region.
They are expected to begin work on Monday morning.
“Following a situational assessment and discussions with local officials, it emerged that search and rescue is the main need at the Brazilian disaster site,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
The army said the search-and-rescue teams would use radar, underwater sonar, cellular detection systems and drones to locate the missing people.
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) January 27, 2019
The 14-hour flight to Brazil was made via a chartered El Al airplane, which took off from Ben Gurion International Airport on Sunday morning. Preparations for the trip began on Saturday, following a conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Ties between Israel and Brazil have warmed with the election of Bolsonaro, who said earlier this month that he will move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. The Brazilian president’s confirmation of the move came after Netanyahu visited the South American country for Bolsonaro’s January 1 investiture.
Israel regularly offers aid and search and rescue help to countries both friendly and hostile, though this appeared to be the first-ever aid delegation to Brazil.
Brazilian rescue crews returned to mud-covered flats Sunday to resume the search after the operation was suspended for several hours over fears that a second dam was at risk of breach.
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) January 28, 2019
Earlier Sunday, authorities stopped the search and evacuated several neighborhoods in the southeastern city of Brumadinho that were within range of the second B6 dam owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale. An estimated 24,000 people were told to get to higher ground, but by the afternoon civil engineers said the second dam was no longer at risk.
“Get out searching!” a woman yelled at firefighters in the center of Brumadinho. “They could be out there in the bush.”
Areas of water-soaked mud appeared to be drying out, which could help firefighters get to areas previously unreachable.
Even before the brief suspension of rescue efforts, hope that loved ones had survived a tsunami of iron ore mine waste from Friday’s dam collapse was turning to anguish and anger over the increasing likelihood that many of the missing had died.
Zema, the governor, said that by now most recovery efforts will entail pulling out bodies.
The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and an occupied Vale administrative office. It buried buildings to their rooftops and an extensive field of the mud cut off roads.
Some residents 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 neighborhood of Parque Cachoeira, 5 miles (8 kilometers) from where the dam collapsed.
Pedrosa, 45, and her parents dashed to their car and drove to the highest point in the neighborhood.
“If we had gone down the other direction, we would have died,” Pedrosa said.
“I cannot get that noise out of my head,” she said. “It’s a trauma … I’ll never forget.”
In addition to the dead, 23 people were hospitalized, according to the Minas Gerais fire department. There had been some signs of hope earlier Saturday when authorities found 43 more people alive.
The rivers 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 UN report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”