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Canyon wall falls onto boats in Brazil and kills several people, authorities say

A boat navigates a canyon in Lago de Furnas, near Capitólio, Brazil, in September 2021. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)
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A massive rock formation fell onto four boats in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on Saturday morning, leaving at least seven people dead and about 30 injured, officials said.

Video shows the rock slab break away from a Lago de Furnas canyon wall while onlookers scream. The collapse caused a massive wave that sent boats flying, a clip shows.

Three women and four men were confirmed dead, Pedro Aihara, a spokesperson for the Minas Gerais fire department, told The Washington Post. More than 30 people were treated at the scene of the Capitólio city collapse, and nine were taken to hospitals with serious injuries. One person was in critical condition with head injuries. Three were missing Saturday night.

The fire department said the collapse sank two of the four boats that were under the collapsing canyon wall.

Aihara said Saturday evening that the seven confirmed dead were family and friends celebrating the end of the holiday season before the ledge fell onto their boat. None of the 10 people aboard that ship — named Jesus — is believed to have survived, including a 10-year-old.

“It’s just the saddest thing in the world to imagine,” Aihara said. “To think that these people of all ages, even children, were having fun and enjoying that beautiful lake before an unimaginable tragedy struck.”

Boaters recorded signs of the collapse minutes before the ledge came crashing down. People aboard ships farther from the canyon’s wall started noticing “too many rocks falling down,” a video shared on social media shows. They screamed “Get away, get away” and “it’s going to fall” — but their pleas may have been muffled by the distance and the sound of music in the background.

About 40 divers and firefighters were deployed, Col. Edgard Estevo, commander of the Minas Gerais fire department, said during a news conference Saturday. The search for missing people would continue through the night, he said, but divers would stop after dusk and resume early Sunday.

The Brazilian navy said in a news release that it is investigating what triggered the collapse, which the governor attributed to rain.

“Today we are suffering the pain of a tragedy in our state, due to heavy rains, which caused the detachment of a wall of rocks in Lago de Furnas, in Capitólio,” Minas Gerais Gov. Romeu Zema tweeted in Portuguese.

Aihara, the fire department spokesperson, said the canyon’s rocky composition made it particularly vulnerable to the rain.

“We have a rock formation that is basically composed of sedimentary rocks,” he said. “So these are rocks that naturally have a much lower resistance to winds and water.”

Brazil’s National Meteorology Institute on Friday warned Minas Gerais that a “practically stationary” band of clouds could dump more than four inches of rain per day through Monday.

Brazil’s southern region has a rainy season between October and March. The downpours have caused extensive damage in Minas Gerais since October — leaving six people dead, 3,224 homeless and 13,439 displaced before Saturday, a state military agency that handles natural disasters said in a news release. About 140 cities in the state have declared emergency situations in that span.

Saturday’s rains flooding parts of Belo Horizonte — the state’s capital — and in a dam in Nova Lima that overflowed and blocked a nearby highway, Nova Lima’s City Hall said in a news release.

The rain also posed a flash-flooding risk in Capitólio, prompting the state military agency to issue an alert Saturday morning, cautioning people to stay away from waterfalls — such as the one near where the canyon wall toppled.

With myriad warnings pointing to danger, the Brazilian Navy said it would investigate why boat rides were allowed. Aiharas said that, at the time of the collapse, bad weather was not hindering ships.

“Usually boat rides are stopped when it’s raining,” he said. “And while there has been a ton of heavy rain in the area, it was not raining on Saturday morning. The alerts encompass Minas Gerais, which is a really big state in Brazil.”

Lago de Furnas, known for its canyons and waterfalls, is a popular destination for tourists, boaters and fishermen.

Rovilson Teixeira, who works for a company that provides speedboat rides, told the Brazilian outlet O Tempo that he had never seen anything like Saturday’s disaster.

“We are all stunned; nobody knows how many victims, but I can already tell you that there were not one or two deaths, but many deaths,” Teixeira said. “There are a lot of hurt people. The region is full of ambulances that have come from other areas to pick up the victims, but no one yet realizes the scale of the tragedy here.”

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