At least seven people have been killed and a further 200 have gone missing in southeast Brazil after a tailings dam collapsed at an iron ore mine causing severe flooding in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
Fabio Schvartsman, the chief executive of the company that owns the mine, Vale SA, said only one-third of the roughly 300 workers at the site during Friday’s disaster had been accounted for.
“The principal victims were our own workers,” Schvartsman told a news conference on Friday evening, adding that the canteen where many ate “was buried by the mud at lunchtime“.
Seven bodies had been recovered by nightfall, said Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of the town of Brumadinho where the dam burst in the mining-heavy state of Minas Gerais.
The toll was expected to rise sharply.
President Jair Bolsonaro will visit the affected region on Saturday, a government spokesman said. Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was already on his way.
Bolsonaro “regrets the possible loss of life” and was closely following the situation, spokesman Otavio Santana do Rego Barros told reporters.
Television images taken from the air showed a wide swath of devastation cut through vegetation and farmland.
Several damaged homes could be seen. Some were destroyed with nothing but their tiled roofs left sitting on mud.
An emergency team from the Ibama environmental protection agency had been dispatched to the zone impacted by Friday’s dam collapse to determine the damage, Salles told the G1 news website.
The agency estimated the collapse had released a million tonnes of water and mud, according to the Estadao newspaper.
Five helicopters were dispatched to the area to search for people in distress and evaluate the scale of the destruction.
Civil defence officials said people living in low-lying areas in the town had been evacuated from their homes.
Brumadinho’s municipality issued an alert on social media warning residents to move away from the Paraopeba river that the dam had been holding back.
The accident comes three years after Brazil’s worst environmental disaster when a larger dam owned jointly by Vale and BHP Billiton broke in the same region, burying local homes and killing 19 people.
Friday’s incident appeared to pale in comparison with the 2015 disaster in Mariana in Minas Gerais when the tailings dam at the Samarco iron ore mine burst.
Brumadinho is located 60km southwest of Belo Horizonte.
The town is best known to tourists for Inhotim, an outdoor contemporary art museum, which was evacuated as a precaution. The venue receives about 35,000 visitors a month.