BENTO RODRIGUES (Brazil) • From when the first warnings were heard, the Brazilian village of Bento Rodrigues had about 25 minutes to escape.
The water from a broken dam holding waste water from the nearby Samarco mine in Minas Gerais state moved fast down the valley. A flood believed to be some 20m high swept through the village of 600, destroying homes and livelihoods within minutes.
Apart from a few houses spared by being on higher ground, homes are little more than bare walls now. A thick sludge of water and iron ore tore off the roofs and settled over the village like hardening wax, leaving twisted cars perched awkwardly in its wake. Helicopters buzzed overhead, searching for the lost 24 hours after the deluge.
One person has been confirmed dead, 13 are reported missing and many more remain unaccounted for after two tailings dams burst last Thursday at the Samarco mine owned by two of the world's largest miners, Vale SA and BHP Billiton .
A school in the line of the advancing water was hastily evacuated by teachers, an act which is thought to have saved dozens of lives. "There are heroes in this tragedy," local mayor Duarte Junior said in acknowledgement of their actions.
Six villages were hit by the flood as 60 million cubic metres of waste water swamped the region. Residents were evacuated to a gymnasium in the nearby town of Mariana, where hundreds of mattresses lined the floor and medical staff bustled in white coats attending to the injured.
Donations of water, clothes and blankets poured in from well-wishers, with many taking the day off work to help those who have lost everything. "There's nothing left in my village. Just memories," said 24-year-old Ms Soraia Souza from the village of Paracatu de Baixo, while holding an 18-month-old baby wearing just a diaper.
Samarco said the causes of the dam ruptures were not known. Its head of emergency planning operations, Mr Germano Silva Lopes, told a news conference the firm had detected a tremor but no anomalies in the dams before they burst.
He said the first ruptured reservoir contained 55 million cubic meters of iron mineral deposits - less than its full capacity. All of it flooded out into the adjoining valley last Thursday afternoon.
A second dam holding back seven million cubic metres of waste broke shortly afterwards.
Fifteen-year-old Marcos Junior de Souza told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper that he fled across the rooftops to escape the torrent.
"All my life, I had heard people saying the dam was going to break," he was quoted as saying.
"I never thought much of it until the water flooded my house."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE