Fresh alert over Brazil dam collapse as relatives’ anguish intensifies

Fading hopes for survivors of a deadly dam collapse in Brazil were further dashed on Sunday when rescue efforts were temporarily halted because of concerns that another dam operated by the same company was also at risk of rupturing.

As the search was paused authorities began evacuating several neighbourhoods in the south-eastern city of Brumadinho that were within range of the B6 dam owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale.

“Leave here, this is at risk,” police officials told firefighters. “Within a little while, more mud will fall.”

Flavio Godinho, a spokesman for the regional civil defence agency, later said that authorities were no longer concerned that the B6 dam was at risk of collapse, and that the evacuation of up to 24,000 people from Brumadinho had been called off.

At least 58 people have been confirmed killed and hundreds remain missing following Friday’s mudslide. Even before the latest setbacks, hope that people had survived the tsunami of iron ore mine waste from the dam collapse was turning to anguish that there would be no more survivors.

Just below a football field where military rescue helicopters were parked, a Vale building had been turned into a centre for people waiting for news of missing relatives. People waiting here were increasingly worried that family members might not be found and were critical of the lack of information the company had supplied.

Sunday was the second day that Marina and Manaira Avila had come with other relatives in search of news of their cousin Angélica Avila, a Vale employee last seen by a colleague on Friday morning.

“I am losing hope,” Marina Avila said. “I am praying for a miracle.

“We don’t know if there will be more searches today. How long do we come here, a month, two months, two days? The morgue has 37 bodies and has only identified eight of them. We are in a state of anguish. Where else would my cousin be safe if not at work? It is revolting.”

Marconi Machado had come with three relatives in search of news of his missing nephew Wanderson da Silva, a Vale geologist due to get married in May. He had been on the phone to Marconi’s brother as the wave of mud hit.

“He said, ‘goodbye, I’m just going to lunch,’ then he said, ‘oh, something happened here,’ I’m going.” That was the last anyone heard of him.

Marconi found out about the tragedy when videos and news began circulating on WhatsApp. He too criticised the lack of information.

“Brazil continues not learning its lessons. It has wonderful opportunities to construct its history but insists on making the same mistakes. People rely on words and not actions,” he said. Marconi gestured at the volunteers on a row of tables wearing yellow vests. “They should be in charge. They are people with attitude,” he said.

Other volunteers were offering religious help. Sirmalia Jesus, an evangelical Christian missionary, came with a large group of church members to offer prayer and support. “It is very sad. We came to offer hope with a hug and a gesture,” she said.

Natália Xavier was volunteering psychological and emotional support using the teachings of the Japanese Sukyo Mahikari religious group. “We wanted to offer this light to people,” she said.

In 2015, another dam owned by Vale collapsed in the city of Mariana in the same state of Minas Gerais, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.

The Minas Gerais state prosecutors office said on Sunday that a further 6bn reais (£1.2bn) of Vale’s assets had been frozen – taking the total to 11bn reais.

The chief executive of Vale, Fabio Schvartsman, apologised on Saturday without taking responsibility for the incident, in a television interview. “Apologies to society, apologies to you, apologies to the whole world for what has happened,” he said. “I don’t know who is responsible, but you can be sure we’ll do our part.”

Meanwhile Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that his government would do everything in its power to prevent more tragedies like Mariana and Brumadinho.