By Samantha Pearson and Luciana Magalhaes | Photographs by Lucas Landau for The Wall Street Journal 

BRUMADINHO, Brazil -- The Ribeiro family, which settled in this small town a century ago, owes much of what it has to the nearby Vale SA iron-ore mine.

But the operation exacted a terrible price in January when a tailings dam burst, unleashing a torrent of mud and debris. Dozens of the Ribeiros' relatives and friends are among the 333 dead and missing.

It was the worst disaster of its kind in more than 50 years, shaking the faith of the Ribeiros and their neighbors in Brazil's colossal and politically powerful mining companies and the ability of the government to regulate them.

Sitting on her back porch a week after the catastrophe, 75-year-old Genoveva Ribeiro said she has lost track of how many people she knows who were killed.

"It's easier to count the living," she rasped, struggling to be heard above the hum of helicopters delivering corpses and body parts extracted from the muck to refrigerated vans parked in the town square.

It was 12:25 p.m. on Jan. 25 -- a Friday. The sun was shining. Workers in the mine's canteen were chatting about weekend plans over meat, rice and beans. Others, who had finished lunch early, were filing out of the canteen when they heard what one witness said sounded like a jumbo jet taking off.

They spun around to see a cloud of orange dust filling the sky. The ground trembled as a sea of sandy mud powered toward them, sweeping up trucks and trees, and toppling utility poles, according to survivors' accounts and videos of the scene.

Some workers stood still. Others ran for their lives. Several young men leapt into a pickup truck and sped to safety. After obliterating the mine's canteen and offices, the tide of earth flattened homes and a packed hotel, before hardening and locking everything caught in its path in a muddy grave.

Rescue workers had recovered 134 bodies by late Monday. Another 199 people are missing and presumed dead.

Among the people whose remains have been found was Gilmar José da Silva, a neighbor who Ms. Ribeiro had taken under her wing. She recalled spending afternoons listening to him recount romantic misadventures over homemade cherry-like acerola juice from her garden. Another was Eudes José de Paula, her cousin's son. He had just quit his job in the mine to teach soccer but had gone to the canteen to say goodbye to his colleagues.

Ms. Ribeiro couldn't make it to his funeral, blocked by a barrier of hardened mud that stands between Brumadinho's town center and her neighborhood, Córrego do Feijão. The only alternative to reach the cemetery, as well as Brumadinho's banks, schools and doctors, is now a treacherous two-hour drive around the mountain.

The Ribeiros fear for their livelihood. Hilton, Genoveva's son, said he may have to sell the family grocery store, the only one in Córrego do Feijão. Regulars owe him thousands of dollars and now many of them are dead.

"I must have lost about 60 friends," he said. "Life won't be the same again."

His goddaughter Lucineia Ornelas has already lost her job -- as well as almost all of her co-workers. The day of the disaster, her sick husband phoned her asking her to come home from the luxury hotel where she worked as manager, looking after celebrities and other wealthy Brazilians visiting the nearby art museum Inhotim. Several minutes after she left, the torrent of mud hit the hotel with so much force that bodies were found almost a mile down the valley.

"It's not anger we have for Vale; it's hatred," said her husband, Mauricio.

Vale had reassured everyone that the mine was safe after a dam at another mine jointly owned by the company 80 miles away burst in 2015, killing 19 people.

Police arrested five people last week, including engineers who certified the safety of the collapsed dam, as they seek to determine if those certificates were issued fraudulently.

Vale said it has followed best practices and is cooperating fully with the investigation.

Ms. Ribeiro and many of her neighbors don't want to see the mine closed. They want the authorities to make sure it doesn't kill anyone again.

She has fond memories of the day when her late husband Aristóteles got his first job as a laborer at the mine around the same time that Ferteco, its then-owner, began building the tailings dam in 1976. "He would say, 'That thing may come crashing down one day, and then what?' "

But the salary was good, allowing them to leave behind subsistence farming, she said. Their seven children -- one boy and six girls -- attended the on-site school, one going on to become a lawyer and another a teacher in Minas Gerais' state capital, Belo Horizonte. Their son, Hilton, joined his father, working as a machine operator at the site after the mining giant and current owner Vale bought Ferteco from Germany's Thyssenkrupp AG in 2001.

After Aristóteles retired, he used his savings to open the grocery store.

It wasn't just Aristóteles who was uneasy about the upstream tailings dam, whose wall is gradually built up from overlapping piles of mining waste. One of Genoveva's sons-in-law, Magno Aguiar, who worked at Vale for six years, said other employees also wondered about the safety of the 280-foot-high dam, especially after the 2015 dam collapse, which ranked as Brazil's worst environmental disaster at the time.

The Córrego do Feijão dam appeared stable from above; the top layer of waste was so solid that trees were growing in it. Experts believe it gave way because it became saturated with water beneath the surface, causing the contents to suddenly turn to sludge, which also happened in the 2015 collapse.

But in a town where nearly everyone owes their livelihood to Vale, "people didn't want to be the person to cause a problem," Mr. Aguiar said. One survivor of the disaster said his wife would have likely died years ago from problems during childbirth if it weren't for the private health insurance the company offered.

"In a poor country like Brazil, where the state is so weak, these companies end up doing more for people than the government. They start to take on the role of the state in these people's lives," said Rafael Alcadipani, from the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian think tank. Their importance makes holding them to account all the more important, he said.

With annual revenue of $34 billion in 2017, Vale now ranks as the world's largest iron-ore miner.

While Brazilians living near similar mines in towns such as Nova Lima further east or in the Perus neighborhood in São Paulo are worried about a repeat occurrence, local politicians are panicking about plunging royalties. Nova Lima Mayor Vitor Penido said Vale's decision to decommission the upstream dams there because they were a similar design to the Brumadinho dam will slow production, drastically reducing funds for health clinics, schools and other public services.

Two days after the dam burst, rescue workers began to lose hope of finding anyone else alive. Brumadinho's overwhelmed cemeteries sent out requests over the radio for volunteers to help dig more graves. By the middle of last week, firefighters were largely only finding body parts, trying to piece together blackened, decomposing limbs like a macabre jigsaw puzzle -- a rescue operation that has pushed locals to the breaking point.

"Hope is the last thing to die in a man, but it's gradually disappearing, " said Ivelton Martins, a 30-year-old engineering student who has been digging through the mining waste himself to find his cousin.

Many of the homes near the mud now lie abandoned as residents have gone to stay with friends and relatives on higher ground. Troops have been called in after a spate of looting.

But Genoveva refuses to leave her house, resisting efforts by her daughter Silvana, the teacher, to take her back to the city to live with her.

"This is my land," she said defiantly. "I'm not leaving."

--Paulo Trevisani in Brasília and Jeffrey T. Lewis in São Paulo contributed to this article.

Write to Samantha Pearson at and Luciana Magalhaes at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 05, 2019 06:44 ET (11:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Historical Stock Chart
From Nov 2020 to Dec 2020 Click Here for more VALE ON Charts.
Historical Stock Chart
From Dec 2019 to Dec 2020 Click Here for more VALE ON Charts.