Brumadinho, Brazil – Rose Silva sat patiently in a crowded makeshift rescue centre in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais. She was waiting for news about her cousin Wesley. He was one of the 272 people still missing after a dam collapsed in this northeastern Brazilian town last week. At least 84 people are dead.
“He was having lunch right at the bottom at the dam when it collapsed, so were hundreds of others,” Silva told Al Jazeera.
She had been here for days, sitting in a plastic lawn chair, hoping to find her cousin every time a new list came out as more bodies were found and identified.
“Dead or alive, we just want to know. I just want to know if he’s well. If he’s already in God’s hands,” she said without any emotion.
The Brumadinho dam was serving the Corrego do Feijao mine, run by mining giant Vale.
When it collapsed on Friday, it unleashed 12 million cubic metres of mud and debris engulfing houses, cars, buses and hundreds of workers, including Wesley, who was eating in the cafeteria at the time.
“This is a revenge from nature, you know. We messed with her, now she messes with us,” Silva said.
Leticia Lucimeri was also waiting at the shelter for news about her boyfriend, 29-year-old Cleyton Silva.
Lucimeri is among many who blame Vale for the accident, saying that working conditions were “inhumane” and that “they knew this would happen”.
“Just a few weeks ago they did some repairs on the dam and they did a drill on the event of a dam collapse,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that no one from the company had spoken to the victims’ families directly.
In an emailed statement, Vale said it was “collaborating fully with the authorities. It will continue to help with investigations to find out the facts, along with its unconditional support to the affected families.”
The Brazilian Ministry for the Environment ordered Vale to pay a $58m fine, and the state government of Minas Gerais is suing the company for $25m. The government also froze around $1.3bn of the company’s assets.
On Monday, Vale promised to pay $25,000 to each family affected. A day later, it said it was closing 19 dams in the area and temporarily suspending all operations in Minas Gerais. Its offices were raided by Brazilian officials and five engineers were arrested, according to local media sources.
‘It could’ve been me’
Meanwhile, family members and residents have been left to cope with the devastation left behind by the mudslide.
The road linking the centre of Brumadinho to Corrego do Feijao used to be a short one, crossing a lush green valley. Now it has disappeared under a sea of red clay and debris.
From Celso Gomes’s porch in Brumadinhdo, a few metres from the area, there was a constant flow of police cars and firefighters drenched in mud, with helicopters hovering overhead.
“My cousin is missing, our neighbour’s daughter is missing – she was a nurse at Vale – and that lady’s husband is also missing,” said Gomes, pointing to the people sitting in his living room. “There’s people with five, seven, family members missing.”
Although he was employed by another company, Gomes also worked in Vale’s mine, cleaning the wagons. “I was supposed to be there that day,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Luckily they changed my shift for an overnight one. But I was still going there to fill out some papers, right at that time. My cousin convinced me to stay here and go swim in the river. That’s saved me,” he said. “That was God’s hands for sure.”
None of Gomes‘ family or friends has been contacted by Vale yet. His father shook his head: “Nothing, nothing from Vale.”
The 20 year-old said it was hard to feel grateful about having escaped.
“When I think about my luck, I also think about all those men who are still under there, including my cousin,” he said. “I believe he is still alive somewhere. If God’s willing, he’s still alive.”
Battle for justice begins
As the days passed, Pedro Aihara, spokesman for the local fire department said it was hard to keep the morale of the rescue teams up as the chances of finding survivors were grim.
“The mud fills every little space and then hardens,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Textbook rule says is virtually impossible to find survivors of a mudslide after 48 hours and we are now 72 hours in. That would be a speck outside the lines,” he said earlier this week. “We are at least trying to find the bodies so the families can bury them with dignity. But on [during] the next few days we’ll start using machinery to remove the mud.”
For many such as Silva, that would mean that the possibility of finding survivors would be slimmer. “I know they will find him, I know,” she said more in hope than actual belief.
For others, like Lucimeri, it would be the beginning of a battle for justice.
“We are such a small town, everyone knows each other and everyone knew what was happening with the dam,” she said. “No one reported it because they were afraid of losing their jobs, we are going through a crisis, we have to work.”
Vale has yet to address the causes of the Bento Rodrigues dam collapse in 2015, which was co-owned with BHP at that time. The collapse, which spilt more than 60 million cubic metres of mining waste onto the nearby city of Mariana is considered Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster. Three years after it happened, several Vale executives were charged with murder but never arrested, and the company was ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. According to local reports, however, less than four percent has been paid out.
The minister of environment estimates that there are some 4,000 dams, owned by companies across Brazil, that are considered to have a “high risk” of collapsing or have “high damage potential”. According to CNN, the one which collapsed on Friday was recently deemed “low risk” by the country’s National Mining Agency, raising questions about Brazil’s assessment process.
Pointing to the 2015 collapse and the one last week, Leticia said she feared the pattern of devastation might repeat itself.
“There are people who are still alive, still working on these mines and they need more care and safety,” she said. “How many times will this happen again?”