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Brazil resume search for survivors

January 27, 2019

With hundreds still missing following a dam collapse in Brazil, authorities said another dam in the area was at risk of bursting. Officials had urged people to evacuate, but later said the danger was no longer imminent.

Men standing in a river of sludge in Brazil
Image: Agencia Brasil/Divulgação/Corpo de Bombeiros

Brazilian authorities resumed the search for survivors of a dam breach on Sunday, following an hourslong disruption and a large evacuation effort over another threatened breach of a dam. 

At least 58 people are dead and hundreds remain missing after the first dam collapsed near the town of Brumadinho on Friday.

Early on Sunday, mining company Vale sounded the alarm over dangerously high water levels at a different dam, called B6, in the same area. Officials then moved to evacuate several Brumadinho neighborhoods within range of the B6 dam, amid concerns that it might also rupture.

The alert prompted officials to put search and rescue operations on hold: "Our work is completely focused on the evacuation," said Pedro Ahiara, a spokesman for firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais, citing the risk of B6 "breaking."

Helicopter brought in to help with the search and rescue
Rescuers used helicopters to search for survivorsImage: picture-alliance/AP/L. Correa

Alert ends

The 39,000 residents of Brumadinho in southeast Brazil had been alerted by sirens and told to evacuate early on Sunday, just days after the collapse of a nearby dam released a deadly river of sludge in the area.

"Attention, general area evacuation!" officials said over loudspeakers. "Find the highest point in the city."

By Sunday afternoon, however, civil engineers and officials said the B6 dam was no longer at risk.

The outskirts of Brumadinho were touched by the mud in the first dam collapse
The outskirts of Brumadinho were hit by the mud in the first dam collapseImage: picture-alliance/AP/L. Correa

Volunteers turned away

On Friday, the first dam collapsed near the Corrego de Feijao iron ore mine, releasing 1 million cubic meters (35.3 million cubic feet) of tailings, the residue separated during mining processes. 

Officials said that around 300 people remain unaccounted for, including 100 employees of mine operator Vale. Many others were trapped by the sludge.

Rescue teams managed to find 192 people by Sunday. However, hopes to find more survivors faded, partly due to intermittent rains.

Authorities urged volunteer rescuers to stay away from the slippery mud which covers large parts of the affected area. Press outlets were asked not to use drones to avoid collision with rescue helicopters.

More than 100 Israeli soldiers and other rescue personnel arrived in the region late on Sunday to join recovery efforts. The Israeli army said its team would use specialized equipment for finding missing people, including underwater radars and drones.

Cause unknown

Vale has not said what caused the dam to breach. Attorney General Raquel Dodge has however vowed to probe the incident.

"Someone is definitely at fault," she said.

German certification company TÜV Süd had found no problems with the dam during an inspection in September 2018.

"We will fully support the investigation," the company said.

Brazil freezes billions in Vale assets

Vale was already under fire over another dam collapse, in 2015, which killed 19 people and released millions of tons of toxic waste in the same area.

Following Friday's rupture, Brazil's environmental protection agency hit the company with a $66.5 million (€58.3 million) initial fine.

Judicial officials also reportedly froze at least $3 billion in company assets.

amp, dj/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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