It was a quiet Friday in January, when residents of Brumadinho, Brazil, first heard the trees falling. A dam at the local iron ore mine collapsed, generating a wave of toxic waste that crushed everything in its path. Residents tried to outrun the rust-red mud as it engulfed their homes, cars and pets. Almost 300 people were killed or went missing. Now, survivors left with very little are trying to start over.
Denisiana França, 39 and a housekeeper, was home alone when she noticed a drain pipe in her home start to shake. Then her phone rang: It was her boss’s husband, who worked at the mine, telling her to run.
“I went downstairs and everyone was crying, watching their houses being taken away. It was a horror scene. The mud took everything.”
She was able to get away from the sludge, but her cousin and a nephew did not survive. Now, as she helps her neighbors rebuild their homes, she fears the long-term effects of the collapse.
“The disaster broke the town’s spirit,” she said. “We lost the will to smile, to play. It was so peaceful here. Now we are fighting for space with vultures, who come after the dead animals and body parts in the river. The smell is unbearable.”
The dam belonged to Vale, Brazil’s largest mining company. Vale’s chief executive and other leaders stepped down after documents revealed the company knew the dam had a high risk of collapse before it failed. The Brazilian government ordered eleven employees and contractors who assessed the stability of the dam to be jailed, fined the company $ 60million and froze $1.3 billion in its accounts to pay for the damage.
The rupture comes three years after a dam at another Vale mine burst, killing 19 people and gushing toxic waste into a nearby river in Brazil’s worst industrial environmental disaster to date. As the second dam collapsed in January, survivors of the 2015 deluge looked on in disbelief.
Father Andre Agostino Theotokos was at a nearby conference when he saw the disaster unfolding on television. The next day he traveled to the town to counsel families whose loved ones had disappeared and to organize donations. When he arrived at the scene of the disaster, he was shocked.
“It looked like the moon: the dryness, the silence, the pain. The emptiness of the scene hit my chest,” he said. “It got me thinking of man’s destructive power, of the greed and abuses in the mining sector.”
“We lost everything, but most importantly, we lost our history,” said Abel Gomes, 64. “This was my river, my woods, where I fished.” He saw the mud pushing toward them, and shouted to his wife, Adelia, 55, who was eating lunch in the kitchen, to get up and run.
“I didn’t have time to put the food in my mouth,” she said. “I pulled my granddaughter into my lap and left my dog behind.”
“I was revolted. The company didn’t see what happened here as a warning and take precautions,” said Tania Penna Carvalho, 51, whose husband, Daniel, drowned in waste when the first Vale dam burst in 2015. “It is awful. We know what these families are going through.”