SÃO PAULO — Over a dozen people are thought to be have been killed after two dams burst in rural southeastern Brazil, triggering a wall of sludgy mining spoils to cascade down a valley and wipe out an entire town, burying residents alive.
It was initially reported that the 170-meter (560-foot) high Fundão Dam, which was holding back a 40 square kilometer (15.4 square mile) lake of “tailings” – the spoils of mining operations, breached at 4:20 p.m. local time (GMT 18:20), swamping the small town of Bento Rodrigues below.
The mining company operating the dam later said that two dams had in fact failed.
The muddy tsunami swept away cars and swallowed entire buildings in the town of approximately 600 people, which is around 15 miles from Mariana, a colonial town in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
The state’s name translates literally as “General Mines” and is home to vast open iron ore extraction operations, vital to Brazil’s commodity-dependent economy.
There has so far been no official information from the government or the company involved on the number of casualties.
However, the Minas Gerais state fire and rescue service told Mashable that one person had died and four others had been injured; a further 13 people are missing.
“Rescue efforts continued throughout the night and were redoubled this morning. Access is extremely difficult – and we are currently using helicopters to get to the site,” a spokesperson for the fire service told Mashable.
“We’re mapping the area and working with local residents to work out where people might be located.”
A local mining workers’ union, Metabase, told the G1 news portal that as many as 25 people remained unaccounted for, and that it feared 15 or 16 people could have been killed.
President Dilma Rousseff put the national forces on standby to help with the rescue mission.
The mayor of Mariana, Duarte Júnior, told the local Estado de Minas newspaper he was “completely bewildered by the catastrophe”: “Everyone is in shock. We’re pleading to God that people managed to get out of the worst-affected places in time.”
Miner Andrew Oliveira managed to escape. He told G1 his team felt a “jolt” but carried on working. Then the dams broke: “It was like an earthquake started.”
Footage by one of the miners was later posted on social media, showing clouds of red sludge at the front of the wall of thick mining waste.
Mariana-based journalist Roberto Verona, who was one of the first to arrive on the scene, said fire crews on the scene had found four bodies – but that the number would almost certainly rise: “It’s a scene of utter devastation. We could see lots of people cut off by the mud, some of them injured, calling out to us for help – but it just wasn’t possible to get to them as there were fears the muds could shift,” he told Mashable.
“About 90% of the people in that town work for the mines – it’s taken away not only lives but livelihoods, and centuries of historic buildings, too,” Verona said, adding that operations at the mining facilities have been suspended.
Fire services told Mashable that those being rescued from the site – and emergency services – were having to be decontaminated as the mining spoils were being treated as toxic.
The rescue mission continued through the night, including with the help of specially-trained sniffer dogs teams; the crews’ work was, however, been hampered by heavy rain and poor cellular reception, a civil defense spokesperson in Mariana told Mashable.
Those forced from their homes were taken to Mariana to emergency shelters; local residents in the hundreds were reported to be lining up to donate food, clothes, mattresses, toiletries and other essentials.
The dams and mines are operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton and Vale, Brazil’s biggest mining company.
Samarco’s CEO Ricardo Vescovi said in a video statement that the company could not confirm the number of victims or the extent of what had happened: “Our focus at this critical moment in time is to preserve people’s lives and the environment.”
“We deeply regret, and are completely dismayed by, what has happened, but we are doing everything we can to mitigate the damage caused,” Vescovi said.
Prosecutors in Brazil have already opened a criminal investigation into the incident.
A source familiar with the mine’s operations told Mashable that reinforcement work had begun on the dam in the last two months and said there had been fears locally that such an accident could happen.
Thursday’s deadly dam breach was not the first in Brazil, nor the state of Minas Gerais – which saw a similar breach in a mining company’s tailings pond dam in 2014, leaving three workers dead.
Two other incidents also hit Brazil’s poorer northeast region in recent years, including a dam in Piauí state that burst in 2009, killing eight people, and another in 2004 in the state of Paraíba, which killed at least three people and left 1,600 homeless.