Brazil Searching for Hundreds Missing After Dam Collapse

Date : 01/28/2019 @ 12:46AM
Source : Dow Jones News
Stock : Cia Vale Rio Doce (VALE3)
Quote : 53.8  0.0 (0.00%) @ 12:46PM

Brazil Searching for Hundreds Missing After Dam Collapse

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By Paulo Trevisani and Jeffrey T. Lewis 

BRUMADINHO, Brazil -- The dam was the size of a 28-story building and it gave way with a loud boom followed by a tidal wave of mining waste that wiped a nearby village away, leaving Brazilian authorities on Sunday still searching for hundreds of missing people two days after the collapse.

The rushing wall of mud, enough to fill a football stadium more than six times, has already claimed 58 lives. If most of about 300 people still unaccounted for are found to be dead, the disaster would be the second-worst mining tragedy of its kind in the world, behind only a 1966 dam collapse in Bulgaria that claimed 488 victims.

A neighbor's warning that the dam had burst helped Antonia Ferreira dos Santos, 59, escape Friday's wall of mud, which swept away the home where she had lived for 25 years, as well as washing away bridges, burying roads and flattening other buildings around the area.

"I opened the gate and ran. When I stopped and looked back at where I had been just a few minutes ago, all I saw were trees and posts being knocked over," she said. "I've lost everything, everything, everything."

The dam, an earthen structure used to store mining waste and mud from mining, is owned by Vale SA, the world's biggest iron-ore producer and one of Brazil's most prominent firms.

Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman on Friday called the accident a tragedy, and asked for forgiveness. The company said it is focusing all its efforts on helping rescuers, including sending a helicopter, 800 hospital beds and supplies of water for the residents of Brumadinho. Friday was a holiday in São Paulo and the stock market was closed, but the company's American depositary receipts fell 8%.

Vale had already come under criticism for another dam collapse in 2015 in the town of Mariana that killed 19 people. Experts at the time said the company had failed to follow basic security procedures in dam safety. The company said it would revise its safety standards.

The government of then-President Dilma Rousseff was fiercely criticized for failing to respond quickly to the disaster in Mariana, when she waited a week before visiting the site of the accident and announcing fines. In the first two days after the dam in Mariana collapsed, much of the rescue work there was carried out by volunteers.

Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was sworn in on Jan. 1, established a crisis cabinet just hours after the accident in Brumadinho, ordering troops and rescue workers to the area the same day and visiting the area the following day.

He also agreed to accept help from the Israeli government, and a team of about 130 soldiers, bringing 16 tons of equipment, arrived in Brazil on Sunday evening.

Legal authorities also appear to be reacting more quickly this time. The state of Minas Gerais has already imposed a fine of 99 million reais ($26 million) on Vale, while the federal environmental agency has imposed a 250-million-real ($66 million) penalty. A federal judge in Minas Gerais also ordered that at least 6 billion reais ($1.6 billion) in Vale's bank accounts be frozen, to guarantee funding for emergency measures and cleanup efforts.

Brazil's federal police have already opened an investigation into the causes of the dam failure, and Attorney General Raquel Dodge said Saturday she wants prosecutors to be tougher on Vale, and to work faster, than they did for the Mariana case.

Before the collapse of the dam, Brumadinho was known as a tranquil, rural town of about 37,000 residents and a base for tourists visiting Inhotim, a nearby open-air art museum.

Inhotim, a bucolic botanical garden exhibiting large, modern sculptures, scattered among a collection of lush plants and trees, was evacuated but undamaged. But it is still not known how many tourists lodged at the inns and hotels dotting the area might have been victims of the accident.

A Vale employee who witnessed the catastrophe said he would normally have been in the company's busy lunchroom at the time of day the dam collapsed, but on Friday he and a colleague unexpectedly had to do some work nearby.

"It was about a minute after we started up the hill when we heard a boom. We saw dust rising up from the dam. We said, 'It burst' and sped up away from it," said the 30-year-old, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job in a town where life revolves around the iron mine. "When we looked again, we saw the mud swallowing up the offices, the restaurant and an area where they park buses."

His first thought was to call his wife, who had given birth to their first son a few weeks before. Then he called his brother-in-law, but got no answer. He called again and again.

"He also worked at the mine. He was having lunch. We never heard from him again."

By Sunday noon, he hadn't heard from any of his many friends believed to be at the mine when the dam collapsed.

His mother was crying inconsolably during Sunday service in Brumadinho's main Catholic church, showing a cellphone photo of her missing son-in-law.

"He was only 40, with a young son. What now?" she said as churchgoers tried to console her. "Everything I have at home I have Vale to thank for. But was it worth it?"

--Andrea Castello Branco and Paul Kiernan contributed to this article.

Write to Paulo Trevisani at paulo.trevisani@wsj.com and Jeffrey T. Lewis at jeffrey.lewis@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 27, 2019 19:31 ET (00:31 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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