Dozens missing in Brazil mine disaster, death toll uncertain

Fri Nov 6, 2015 6:39pm EST
 
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By Stephen Eisenhammer

MARIANA, Brazil (Reuters) - Rescue teams searched through mud and debris on Friday for dozens of people missing after a pair of dams collapsed at a Brazilian mine owned by two of the world's biggest iron ore producers.

Walls of water filled with mining waste cascaded downhill when the dams burst on Thursday, engulfing a nearby village in a sea of mud and flooding others far removed from the open-pit Samarco mine jointly owned by BHP Billiton and Vale.

"I heard screaming and saw the water coming fast, about 15 to 20 meters high (49-66 feet)," said survivor Antonio Santos, a construction worker who was at home in the village of Bento Rodrigues when the dams broke. Bento Rodrigues is about 93 miles (150 km) southeast of Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest city and the capital of the mining state of Minas Gerais.

"Within 10 minutes the whole lower part of the village was destroyed, about 80 percent of it," he said in a gymnasium crowded with survivors in the nearby city of Mariana.

Santos said he knew of four people who were swept away, including two children and two adults in their 50s.

Mine operator Samarco's chief executive officer said a tremor in the vicinity of the mine may have caused the dams to burst, but that it was too early to establish the exact cause. The company said one worker died and 13 were missing.

Firefighters initially put the death toll at two but later said they could not immediately confirm more than one fatality connected to the mine disaster.

They said the count could rise because dozens of people are still unaccounted for in six villages hit by floods unleashed by the successive bursting of the two dams holding waste, or iron ore tailings, from the mine.   Continued...

 
The Bento Rodrigues district is pictured covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst in Mariana, Brazil, November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes