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
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
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
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
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
"It's not anger we have for Vale; it's hatred," said her
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
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
After Aristóteles retired, he used his savings to open the
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and
Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 05, 2019 06:44 ET (11:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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