Latin America & Caribbean

Brumadinho dam: 'Very low' hope for hundreds missing in Brazil

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Media captionRescuers are searching for hundreds of people, missing after a dam collapse caused a huge mudslide

Rescue teams searching for some 300 people missing after a dam collapsed in Brazil on Friday say the chances of finding survivors are "very low".

No-one was rescued alive on Sunday near the south-eastern town of Brumadinho, as the number of dead rose to 58.

"We've got to have hope," said a woman whose 35-year-old husband was missing.

The cause of the dam burst remains unclear. Brazil's largest mining company, Vale, which owns the complex, says safety procedures were followed.

Search operations were suspended for hours on Sunday amid fears that a separate dam, also owned by Vale, was at risk of giving way in the area.

What is the latest on the search effort?

Vale said 305 employees, contractors and residents were still missing. Some 192 people have been rescued alive.

"After 48 hours of work, the chance of finding [someone] alive is very low," Col Eduardo Angelo, who is leading the search operation, told relatives of the missing.

"[But] we're working with the possibility that we'll find people alive."

The dam break caused a sea of muddy sludge to bury the site's cafeteria where workers were eating lunch, before engulfing nearby houses, vehicles and roads.

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Access to the areas is difficult - in some places, the mud is up to 15m (49ft) deep. Search teams have been using helicopters and earth-moving machinery.

A bus that was carrying employees has been found but rescuers have yet to reach a train that could contain survivors or more bodies.

"I still have hope," Nélia Mary Fonseca told the BBC as she waited for details about her husband, Adriano, who worked as a contractor at the site.

An Israeli group of engineers, doctors and members of the navy's underwater missions unit has arrived in Brazil to join the efforts.

Broken families

By Julia Carneiro, BBC News, Brumadinho

Mining is the main economic activity in Brumadinho and now the cause of this unprecedented tragedy that will mark generations to come. The Paraopeba river that cuts through the town has been tinted by iron ore residue and now smells of dead fish.

The first funerals were held on Sunday. Having a body to bury may turn out to be a twisted privilege in this tragedy, with hundreds of people believed to be under the mud and huge challenges to find them.

At the information centre set up to assist the families, volunteers sit behind desks with the lists of those missing, and relatives queue up to check for any updates - or to enter more names of people still unaccounted for.

I met a woman who was searching for her husband and son. Another man expected news from his brother. A young woman looked from her young husband. The dam burst may have broken their families, too.

What about the company?

State prosecutors said they had frozen a total of 11bn reais ($2.9bn; £2.2bn) of assets belonging to Vale, Brazil's largest mining company.

Brumadinho Mayor Avimar de Melo Barcelos criticised the company for being "careless and incompetent", blaming the firm for the dam burst and the state of Minas Gerais for poor oversight. "This tragedy destroyed our city."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rescue efforts have been hampered by the difficult access to areas hit

In a television interview, Vale president Fabio Schvartsman said the disaster had happened even after the company followed safety recommendations by international experts.

"I'm not a mining technician. I followed the technicians' advice and you see what happened. It didn't work," he said.

Mr Schvartsman, who took office in May 2017, promised "to go above and beyond any national or international standards... We'll create a cushion of safety far superior to what we have today to guarantee this never happens again."

Unlike dams used for water, tailings dams - like that in Brumadinho - are used to store by-products from mining operations.

There have been a number of high-profile disasters involving tailings dams in recent years - and there have been calls, including from the UN, to institute better safety and building regulations around them.

On 5 November 2015, a dam owned by Vale, along with BHP Billiton, burst in Mariana, also in Minas Gerais. It killed 19 people in what was considered Brazil's worst environmental disaster at the time.

After a lengthy court case, the companies reached a settlement worth at least 6.8bn reais ($1.8bn) with the Brazilian government.


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