Search for Brazil mudflow survivors stretches to third day

Hundreds of people desperately continue their third day search for dozens missing in vast mudslide in southeastern Brazil

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Debris of a house is pictured at Bento Rodrigues district, witch was covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst in Mariana, Brazil, November 6, 2015

Rescuers for a third day Saturday searched the site where an avalanche of mud and mining sludge buried a village in southeastern Brazil, with at least two people dead and 28 missing.

Hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and civil defense workers probed the viscous mass that swallowed everything in its path for signs of life.

The search was suspended at dusk because "it is a high-risk area that is difficult to access," said Duarte Goncalves Junior, mayor of the nearby city of Mariana.

The tragedy occurred when waste reservoirs at the partly Australian-owned Samarco iron ore mine burst open, unleashing a sea of muck that flattened the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues on Thursday.

Since then, the tidal wave of sludge has continued its destructive advance, leveling a neighborhood and the main plaza in the town Barra Longa 60 kilometers (35 miles) away but causing no loss of life there, a spokesman for the mayor's office told AFP.

- Confusion over casualty count -

Families of the missing were desperately seeking news of their loved ones, amid widely disparate official information.

Authorities have given contradictory tolls of the dead and missing in and around the village of Bento Rodrigues.

But there have been varying casualty counts from jurisdictions in and near the disaster zone.

An undetermined number of people were still unaccounted for in nearby Bento Rodrigues, a village with a population of about 620.

Goncalves Junior said officials were interviewing residents to determine the number of people missing, "but we haven't been able to arrive at a figure."

The head of Mariana's firefighting force, Adao Severino Junior, had said earlier that there were at least 17 dead, adding to the confusion.

Missing child

Meanwhile, flyers were circulated with the picture of a missing five-year old named Emanuele, who slipped from her father's arms as he ran ahead of the torrent carrying her and her two-year-old brother, the newspaper O Globo said.

"We saw him coming with the two children, but he wasn't able to hold on to them," Marlon Celio, 19, a neighbor, told the newspaper.

"We helped grab him, but lost the girl," he said.

According to a list released by the mayor, there are five missing children.

The cascade of debris began with the collapse of a dike at a reservoir holding 55 million cubic meters of mining waste, which spilled into an adjoining valley.

A short time later, another reservoir with seven million cubic meters of water broke, and the mass of liquid sludge swept over Bento Rodrigues some two kilometers away.

"There was a horrible noise and we saw the mud approaching. We ran for it. It is a miracle that we are still alive," said Valeria de Souza, 20, with a baby in her arms and tears in her eyes.

No warning sirens went off, the company said. Instead, it said it called the civil defense authorities, as well as some families and community leaders, to warn them.

Panicked villagers ran screaming toward high ground and from there watched as their houses were swallowed in a river of mud.

About 500 people were evacuated from the village on Thursday after washing off the mud and mineral residue with soap and water.

Besides leveling everything in its path, the avalanche caused "enormous environmental damage," said Carlos Ferreira Pinto, an investigator with the Minas Gerais state prosecutor's office.

The local Mariana miners' union said the sludge was toxic, but Samarco said it was "inert" and contained no harmful chemicals.

The head of Samarco's emergency planning operations, Germano Silva Lopes, told a news conference the company had detected a tremor, but no anomalies in the dams before they burst.