Death Toll Jumps to 58 in Brazil Dam Collapse

Firefighters search for bodies in the region of Corrego do Feijao in Brumadinho, two days after the collapse of a dam at an iron-ore mine belonging to Brazil’s giant mining company Vale near the town of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerias, southeastern Brazil, on January 27, 2019. (Photo by Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of deaths from a collapsed dam at a Brazilian iron mine rose on Sunday from 37 to 58, a spokesperson for the Civil Defense said.

Rescuers resumed search efforts Sunday afternoon at the Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, where a dam burst Friday, unleashing a sea of muddy debris into the region.

Hundreds of people are still missing and the extent of damage is still being calculated. Rescuers are searching inside the dam and areas nearby on foot and in helicopters where the soil is unstable.

The fire department, which is leading search and rescue, acknowledged that with each passing hour the chances of finding survivors wanes. But it vowed to keep searching until everyone is found.

Authorities temporarily halted search and rescue on Sunday and placed 3,000 people under evacuation orders amid fears that another dam nearby was about to rupture. The orders were lifted after authorities determined dam VI was no longer at risk of bursting.

The disaster places Brazilian mining giant Vale under scrutiny less than four years after it was linked to a deadly dam collapse in Mariana in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

The latest disaster prompted State Gov. Romeu Zema on Saturday to declare three days of mourning.

Authorities said 427 people were in the iron mine when the dam burst.

The breach flooded parts of Minas Gerais and buried most of Brumadinho, according to footage from CNN affiliate Record TV.

Debris spilled into the mine’s administrative area, where employees were working, Vale said.

Heavy rains have been hampering rescue efforts. Video showed helicopters hovering feet above the ground as firefighters plucked people from the muck.

At least 361 people have been found and 305 are still missing, Civil Defense spokesperson Col. Flavio Godinho said. Additionally, 23 people are hospitalized, the fire department said.

Vale has a list online with names of people it has not been able to contact.

‘It is hard to witness’

Attorney General André Mendonça said Vale is responsible for the disaster, but the extent of the damage is unknown.

The dam that broke was not classified as high-risk, officials said.

In a company video, Vale chief Fabio Schvartsman called the dam break “inexcusable” and asked for forgiveness. He said Vale will “do all possible” to aid victims.

Mining company Samarco — a joint venture between Vale and BHP Billiton — reached a deal in 2016 with the Brazilian government to pay up to 24 billion reais ($6.2 billion) over the dam collapse in Mariana, which killed 19 people and wreaked havoc on the environment.

Schvartsman said Vale put “immense effort” into improving its dams after the disaster in Mariana. In this instance, Vale says it has provided accommodations for more than 800 people, along with 40 ambulances and a rescue helicopter.

Officials said the first priority is assisting victims and their families and then focusing on environmental damage and the mining process.

The state judiciary has frozen more than $260 million from Vale, with a presiding judge citing the company’s responsibility for the disaster. The money will be deposited into a judicial account to compensate for any costs to the state as a result of rescue operations or victim support. Minas Gerais state has also fined Vale $99 million for damage caused by the dam break and said the money will be used for repairs.

Minister Augusto Heleno, from the Institutional Security Cabinet, said financial aid will be given both directly to residents and local governments, but he did not elaborate on exact amounts or how funds will be distributed.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro flew over the scene Saturday morning and met with Zema before returning to the capital.

“It is hard to witness this whole scenario and not be emotional,” Bolsonaro tweeted Saturday.

“We will do everything in our reach to help the victims, minimize damage, investigate the facts, claim justice and prevent new tragedies like the ones in Mariana and Brumadinho for the well-being of Brazilians and the environment,” he said.

Firefighters search for bodies in the region of Corrego do Feijao in Brumadinho, two days after the collapse of a dam at an iron-ore mine belonging to Brazil’s giant mining company Vale near the town of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerias, southeastern Brazil, on January 27, 2019. (Photo by Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Everyone was desperate’

Karolainy Stefany de Jesus, 21, lives close to the area affected by the dam burst. She got a call from her uncle, who works at Vale, and ran to the affected area to see if she could find relatives.

She said on Saturday that all she found was a scene of despair.

“I could only see people screaming and shouting,” she said. “The sirens did not work, only people shouting to advise others, everyone was desperate.”

De Jesus’ niece, Cristina Paula, is missing and is not on any list. Paula worked at hotel Nova Instancia, which was engulfed by the mud water during the dam break.

De Jesus says two survivors in the hotel told her that employees didn’t have time to advise anyone because, “They could only run for their lives.”

“It is devastating, everyone here at the community is in shock, nobody expected that to happen,” de Jesus said.

Officials expect to contain the mudlike mine waste, called “tailings,” within two days, according to the Brazilian National Water Agency.

Water agency officials said they are monitoring the tailings and coordinating plans for supplying water to the affected region.

An Israeli airplane arrived Saturday with equipment to assist in the search, rescue and identification of victims, the Brazilian government said. Nineteen victims have been identified, said Godinho with the civil defense.

The United Nations in Brazil also offered support, expressing its “deep sorrow and solidarity to the families” of the victims and offered to help remove victims and establish “dignified conditions” for those who are affected.

“The rigorous investigation of the facts that led to this tragedy,” it added, “will be closely followed by Brazilians and the world community.”

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