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Rescue efforts resume at site of Brazil dam collapse after fears of another breach trigger evacuations

An aerial view of the mud and waste from the disaster caused by a dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil.
An aerial view of the mud and waste from the disaster caused by a dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil. (Antonio Lacerda/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BRUMADINHO, Brazil — Rescue operations in central Brazil continued for a third day Sunday after the deluge from a collapsed mining dam left 58 dead and 300 missing.

Fears that another dam in the region would burst after a drain broke prompted authorities to evacuate 350 people and halt rescue operations early Sunday in this central Brazilian community. Operations resumed in the afternoon.  

Friday’s dam collapse released a torrent of potentially toxic sludge and triggered demands for better safety protocols in the country’s mining industry.

Families scoured the hospital looking for signs of their loved ones and watched carefully as firefighters wrenched bodies from the muddy waste.

Some homes in one neighborhood were reduced to rubble. Frightened dogs with fractured limbs climbed over the debris and sniffed the rust-colored mud.

Watch: Mass devastation in Brazil dam burst

“I’m not sure where exactly we’ll go,” said 26-year-old Brenda Teresa, who evacuated her home Sunday morning with her 2-year-old daughter. Her sister-in-law and brother-in-law were missing.

“We’ll go as high as we can if we can,” Teresa said.

Although authorities advised residents to evacuate, Laudi Soares Ribas decided to stay put. Her husband, who worked in the mine, had not been found. “Sometimes we think he is dead, sometimes we think he’s in the hospital,” she said.

Brazilian authorities froze $1.3 billion of the mining company Vale’s funds to pay for rescue efforts and compensation for victims. Authorities also fined the company $66 million. Standard & Poor’s said it may downgrade the company’s BBB- credit rating. 

Many Brazilians called for criminal charges against Vale. Three years ago, another Vale dam burst, killing 19 people in what was then the worst ecological disaster in Brazilian history.

“I don’t know who is responsible, but I apologize to everyone,” Vale’s chief executive, Fabio Schvartsman, said in an interview Saturday on Brazil’s top nightly news show. 

But Attorney General André Mendonça placed blame squarely on the company and said the government needs to take steps to ensure that this type of disaster doesn’t happen again. He said he was weighing criminal and civil charges against the company. 

“The responsibility for this, by the very nature of the risk of the business, lies with the company Vale,” he said.

Valdeci Francisco da Silva, whose family runs a mining company contracted by Vale, searched for his two nephews who had been working near the dam Friday.

“We couldn’t bear waiting at home watching the same news playing over and over again,” he said.

Da Silva, who wore an orange safety vest, whistled in hopes that the two young men missing in the valley would hear him.

Several helicopters landed on the lawn in front of a church that doubled as the headquarters for responders as they searched for bodies Sunday afternoon.

Luiza Pereira, 40, was one of the dozen onlookers who waited in a taped-off section on the side of the church as she watched choppers return. She hoped to find a cousin, a neighbor and family friends who were missing. 

Pereira said she saw seven bodies arrive at the church Sunday afternoon. “I have a horrible feeling in my stomach,” she ­added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Brazilian authorities froze $1.3 million of Vale’s funds. The figure was $1.3 billion. This story has been updated.

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