The local governor, Romeu Zema, said the chance of finding additional survivors was slipping away. “We will likely just be rescuing bodies,” he told reporters.
The incident sparked a national outcry and was the second such disaster to strike Brazil in just over three years amid lax inspections of mining sites. It increased pressure on newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro to backtrack on a push to loosen rules for mining, logging and other industries.
The 280-foot dam burst suddenly, sweeping away workers, animals and residents living near the plant owned by Brazil’s largest mining company, Vale SA.
“It’s like watching the worst horror film,” said 58-year-old Iara Murta, who fled her home with her two sisters after the dam burst. She said she saw bodies and livestock stuck in the river of mud and mining runoff.
The waste blanketed miles of vegetation and seeped into a river, raising concerns of contamination. Firefighters uncovered a bus carrying employees in the wreckage. All onboard were dead.
The incident comes a little more than three years after another dam operated by Vale burst, unleashing a surge that killed 19 people in what had been Brazil’s worst industrial environmental disaster. That catastrophe left hundreds of thousands of people without drinking water, and 300 families lost their homes. Many are still waiting for compensation.
“History is repeating itself,” former environmental minister Marina Silva tweeted. It is inexcusable “that the government and the mining companies have learned nothing.”
Vale’s chief executive, Fábio Schvartsman, said he expected the human toll of Friday’s disaster to surpass the 2015 incident and said the majority of victims were expected to be employees at the mine.
Family members of the missing demanded answers from the company outside a community center established by Vale. “This company kills. You are killing us from the inside,” they shouted.
The Brazilian government fined Vale $200 million and froze $1.3 billion in the company’s accounts to pay for the damage. It also gave the company 48 hours to create a compensation plan for victims and begin removing the waste. The company’s shares fell 8 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.
“I heard an awfully loud noise,” said Juvercino Rodrigues de Oliveira, 76, who was sitting in his backyard as the dam burst. “It sounded like a volcano had erupted.”
Although his home was not damaged, the surrounding area, including his backyard, is flooded. Nearby, a satellite dish, a water tank and some cinder blocks stick out of the field of water like the tips of icebergs in the ocean.
“I had 80 chickens; now only 20 remain.” said Rodrigues de Oliveira.
The incident marks the first environmental crisis for Bolsonaro, who was sometimes called the “Trump of the tropics” for his policies favoring big-business interests. Bolsonaro criticized Brazil’s environmental regulatory agency on the campaign trail as a “factory of fines.”
Bolsonaro flew over the region Saturday morning and created a crisis committee to assess the damage.
“We will do what we can to help victims, minimize damage, uncover the facts, demand justice and prevent new tragedies,” Bolsonaro tweeted. “For the good of Brazil and the environment.”
The mine operated in Minas Gerais, a bankrupt state foundering in debt that has struggled to pay public workers. In December, the state issued Vale an accelerated license to expand the mine amid an outcry from several residents who voiced concerns about risks of the dam bursting.
Inspections of mining dams fell 16 percent in 2017 during a nationwide fiscal crisis, according to Brazil’s national water agency. The agency estimates there are 723 dams across the country at risk of problems.
Lopes reported from Sao Paulo.