Search resumes at Brazil mine disaster site, evacuation ends

Firemen rescue a dog during the search and rescue work of the victims of the dam breakage of the company Vale, in Brumadinho, municipality of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on Jan 27, 2019.
Firemen rescue a dog during the search and rescue work of the victims of the dam breakage of the company Vale, in Brumadinho, municipality of Minas Gerais, Brazil, on Jan 27, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUMADINHO, BRAZIL (AFP) - Fears of a second dam breach at a Brazilian mining complex receded on Sunday (Jan 27), enabling the resumption of a search for the nearly 300 people still missing two days after a dam collapse that has killed at least 37 people.

Loudspeakers rang out at 5.30am (3.30pm Singapore time) among homes surrounding the Corrego do Feijao mining complex in south-eastern Brazil, warning of dangerously high water levels, according to mine owner Vale.

Workers at the complex are still reeling after a barrier at the site burst last Friday, spewing millions of tonnes of treacherous sludge and engulfing buildings, vehicles and roads.

Firefighters halted the search for survivors and immediately began evacuating communities near the dyke, which contains at least three million cubic meters (800 million gallons) of water.

But several hours later, civil defence officials gave the all clear.

"There is no more risk of a break," said Lieutenant Colonel Flavio Godinho, a spokesman for the state civil defence agency, explaining that the high water levels had been drained off.

"The search has resumed - by land, by aircraft and with dogs."

 
 
 

Dozens of helicopters were set to be deployed because the thick mud was too treacherous for ground rescuers.

The latest official toll from the dam breach was 37 dead and 287 missing.

Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, said people were being allowed to return to their homes.

"I had to leave with my family, my children," Mr Jose Maria Silva, 59, told AFP.

 

"We are upset, tense, because leaving our house is not easy. We've been here 15 years, and now we have to leave everything and run away.' Mr Fagner Miranda, 29, said, adding: "Several people ran out, desperate... Those with no car fled on foot, with a backpack on their backs and what they could carry."

Shaken by disaster

So far, 192 people have been rescued alive, 23 of whom were hospitalised with injuries, officials said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro flew over the devastated zone last Saturday, later tweeting that it was "difficult to not be emotional before this scene". All was being done to care for survivors and "determine the facts, to demand justice and prevent new tragedies", he added.

The military said it deployed 1,000 soldiers, including sniffer dogs, to the disaster zone.

An Israeli team of 130 soldiers equipped with cellular location equipment, drones and naval sonars is set to reach the area on Sunday to help search for survivors and bodies, an Israeli military spokesman said.

The disaster was the first big emergency faced by Mr Bolsonaro and his government since he took office in early January, and it may be one of the deadliest disasters in Brazil's history.

Vale has been shaken by the disaster, the second in three years it has suffered in the same state.

Workers at its mine had been at lunch in an administrative area last Friday when they were suddenly swamped by millions of tonnes of muddy trailings - a waste by-product of the iron-ore mining operations.

The ruptured dam, 42 years old and 86m high, had been in the process of being decommissioned. Vale said it had recently passed structural safety tests.

Vale assets frozen

After overflowing a second dam, the muddy mass barrelled down toward Brumadinho but only glanced along the town's edge before roaring through vegetation and farmland, smashing houses and swallowing tractors and roads in its path.

Brazilian judicial authorities announced that they had frozen US$3 billion (S$4 billion) of Vale's assets, saying real estate and vehicles would be seized if the company could not come up with the full amount.

The company also has been hit with fines by the federal and state government totalling some US$92.5 million.

Vale share prices fell more than 8 per cent on the New York Stock Exchange last Friday.

The mining company, one of the world's biggest, was involved in a 2015 mine collapse elsewhere in Minas Gerais that claimed 19 lives in what is regarded as the country's worst-ever environmental disaster.

"There used to be people here, houses. I'm just floored by this tragedy," Ms Rosilene Aganetti, a 57-year-old resident in one of the affected villages, told AFP, pointing to an expanse of mud.

"Several of my friends who were in the Vale cafeteria are missing," she said, holding back sobs.

Another woman, Ms Suely de Olivera Costa, was desperately trying to find her husband, who worked at the mine. She angrily accused Vale of "destroying Brumadinho, and nobody is doing anything - what will be the next town?"

The Brazilian branch of environmental group Greenpeace said the dam break was "a sad consequence of the lessons not learnt by the Brazilian government and the mining companies".

Such incidents "are not accidents but environmental crimes that must be investigated, punished and repaired", it added.