BENTO RODRIGUES, Brazil (Reuters) - From when the first warnings were heard, the Brazilian village of Bento Rodrigues had about 25 minutes to escape.
The water from a broken dam holding waste water from the nearby Samarco mine in Minas Gerais state moved fast down the valley. A flood believed to be some 20 meters (65 feet) high swept through the village of 600, destroying homes and livelihoods within minutes.
Apart from a few houses spared by being on higher ground, homes are little more than bare walls now. A thick sludge of water and iron ore tore off the roofs and settled over the village like hardening wax, leaving twisted cars perched awkwardly in its wake. Helicopters buzzed overhead, searching for the lost 24 hours after the deluge.
One person has been confirmed dead, 13 are reported missing and many more remain unaccounted for after two tailings dams burst on Thursday at the Samarco mine owned by two of the world’s largest miners, Vale SA (VALE5.SA) and BHP Billiton (BLT.L).
A school in the line of the advancing water was hastily evacuated by teachers, an act which is thought to have saved dozens of lives. “There are heroes in this tragedy,” the local mayor Duarte Júnior said in acknowledgement of their actions.
Six villages were hit by the flood as 60 million cubic meters of waste water swamped the region. Residents were evacuated to a gymnasium in the nearby town of Mariana, where hundreds of mattresses lined the floor and medical staff bustled in white coats attending to the injured. Donations of water, clothes and blankets poured in from well-wishers with many taking the day off work to help those who have lost everything.
“There’s nothing left in my village. Just memories,” Soraia Souza, 24, from the village of Paracatu de Baixo, told Reuters while holding an 18-month-old baby wearing just a diaper.
At the site of the worst devastation, twenty rescue workers sweated in the humid Brazilian heat, trying to rescue a horse trapped in the thick, heavy mud. With a rope wrapped around it, twenty men and women tugged to exhaustion, but the animal wouldn’t budge. As dusk turned to dark, hopes the horse could be saved wavered.
“We’ve tried everything, there’s nothing more we can do,” said Maximiliano Inacio, a local firefighter.
Editing by Mary Milliken