Rescue teams in southern Brazil raced to save victims and determine casualties Friday morning, hours after a dam burst at a mining waste site owned by two of the world’s largest mining companies, Vale and BHP Billiton Ltd. The collapsed dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais state, unleashed a surge of thick, red toxic mud that devastated the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues.
Reports of the death toll and injuries from the disaster, which occurred Thursday afternoon, varied greatly. A spokesman for firefighters in the rescue confirmed with Reuters 30 injuries and at least two deaths, but said the count was likely to rise as more mudslides were possible and rescue efforts continue. Mariana fire chief Adao Severino Junior told AFP news agency more than 50 were injured in southeastern Minas Gerais state and at least 17 people died. Several people were also reported missing.
"The situation is grim. It is dark. There is a lot of mud," Severino told AFP Thursday, adding Bento Rodrigues, which has a population of about 600 people, was 80 percent submerged. "There is no way to survive under that material."
The dam contained tailings, a mining waste product of metal filings, water and sometimes chemicals. The dam is situated near the Gualaxo do Norte river, which provides water to Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million people in Minas Gerais state. Its location stirred fears of potential water contamination, Reuters reported.
The deluge of red mud destroyed nearby roads and knocked down cellular towers, cutting off power. Mariana Mayor Duarte Junior said rescue teams were having difficulty reaching the buried village.
"The closest we could get was more or less 500 meters. We cannot get closer because of the mud," he told AFP by phone Thursday. "We do not really know what happened."
The cause of the broken dam is yet to be determined. BHP Billiton Ltd. issued a statement Friday, saying it was in the “process of obtaining more details.” The company also added it was “concerned for the safety of employees and the local community.”