Toll From Brazil Dam Collapse Rises, With Hundreds Still Missing

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BRUMADINHO, Brazil — Rescuers dug through mud and sludge on Saturday, a day after a dam from an open-pit mining complex collapse in southeastern Brazil left at least nine people dead and more than 300 missing.

With the help of helicopters, emergency workers rescued 189 people in the hours after a torrent of mud broke through a dam holding back waste from an iron ore mine, burying nearby homes as well as a company cafeteria and other structures at the mine. But hopes that more survivors would be found on Saturday were fading fast.

“Every hour that passes makes it harder,” said Maj. Flávio Santiago of the regional Civil Defense office, which was leading the rescue efforts. He added that firefighters were still working at places “where there could be nooks where people are trapped under structures.”

Even before the death toll began to rise, the level of devastation quickly led President Jair Bolsonaro and other officials to describe it as a “tragedy.” Mr. Bolsonaro flew over the site of the disaster on Saturday and met with state officials.

“Hard to stand in front of this whole scenario and not get emotional,” he said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

According to Civil Defense, at least 350 people are confirmed missing. Vale, the owner of the mine where the dam collapsed, said it had published on the company website a list of more than 400 employees and contractors whom it had been unable to contact, but the site did not appear to be working.

On Saturday, family members seeking information about workers at the mine crowded in front of a crisis center set up in Brumadinho. Dozens sat on the curb under the hot sun hoping to glean information from officials as they entered or left.

“They say the support center is here, but nobody tells us anything,” said Glória Paulino, 47, whose son Rodney was a mechanic at the Brumadinho mine. “The only information I get is on social media.”

A small cheer went up when officials announced that 189 people had been rescued, but few names or details were provided.

Ms. Paulino said Vale should be held accountable for the disaster. “Life is not worth anything to them,” she said.

The disaster comes just over three years after a dam burst in the city of Mariana, 75 miles away, resulting in 19 deaths, forcing hundreds from their homes, and causing one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history. That dam was also owned by Vale along with the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton.

At a news conference on Friday, the Vale chief executive, Fabio Schvartsman, said he feared there would be many victims, most of them mine workers. “The damage from an environmental point of view is less” than the Mariana disaster, he said. “But the human tragedy will be much greater.”

On Saturday, a judge ordered Vale to freeze 1 billion reais, or about $265 million, to be held against damages caused by the Brumadinho dam collapse. Environmental groups and activists accused Vale of repeating the errors that had led to the disaster at the Mariana dam.

Some said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation.

“History repeats itself,” Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate, said on Twitter. “It’s unacceptable that government and mining companies haven’t learned anything.”

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