The avalanche of mud and mining sludge that swallowed up a village in southeastern Brazil more than likely left at least 13 people dead, with the fate of 15 others still unknown, the governor of Minas Gerais state said Sunday.
The tragedy occurred Thursday 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.
“We can say with certainty that 13 people were at the site at the moment of the collapse, and it is difficult to see how they could be found alive. Regrettably, we have to acknowledge that,” Governor Fernando Pimentel told reporters as rescue operations resumed.
Pimentel said 15 people still unaccounted for after the disaster might have been able somehow to escape the wall of mud and flee to a neighboring village, but he conceded that that scenario was unlikely.
“I don’t want to take away anyone’s hope — it might be that we find someone alive, but as time passes, hope is fading,” he said.
The most recent official toll, prior to Pimentel’s remarks, was two dead and 28 missing.
Hundreds of firefighters, soldiers and civil defense workers are frantically combing through the viscous mass that swallowed everything in its path for signs of life.
The increasingly desperate search resumed as the tidal wave of sludge continued its destructive advance, leveling a neighborhood and the main plaza in the town of Barra Longa, 60 kilometers (35 miles) away, but causing no loss of life there, a spokesman for the mayor’s office told AFP.
The cascade of debris began with the collapse of a dike Thursday at a reservoir holding mining waste, which spilled into an adjoining valley.
A short time later, a water reservoir broke, and the mass of liquid sludge swept over Bento Rodrigues, which has a population of about 620.
Mining giant BHP Billiton, joint owners of the mine with the Brazilian company Vale, said it was offering support.
“Words cannot describe the impact of this tragedy on the employees and contractors of Samarco, their families and the community,” said BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser.
“Our thoughts are with the people of Samarco, the affected community and with the people of Brazil.”
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 found no anomalies in the dams before they burst.