BRUMADINHO, Brazil — One woman searching for her husband collapsed on the floor. Another clutched a photo of her missing daughter and a third shouted at volunteers: “To you, he is just someone you can substitute. But he is my husband, the father of my daughter!”
Scenes of desperation played out at a local school on Saturday in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho where hundreds of people waited as rescue workers dug through mud and sludge searching for survivors a day after a mining dam collapse in southeastern Brazil left at least 34 dead and almost 300 missing.
More than 24 hours after one of the deadliest mining accidents in Brazil’s history, official information was scarce. The Civil Defense office said 199 people had been rescued by emergency workers, but only 23 of their names were tacked on the walls of the makeshift crisis center.
“I’m anxious, despaired, because there is no news,” said Lucilene Ferreira, 37, who was looking for her husband Emerson José. “Sometimes, I think everything will be all right. And sometimes, I think the worst.”
The dam at an open-pit mining complex is owned by the Brazilian iron ore mining company Vale. The disaster in Brumadinho comes just over three years after a dam burst in the city of Mariana, 75 miles away, resulting in 19 deaths. That dam was jointly owned by Vale and the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton and the Mariana rupture was one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history.
The current calamity is the first major crisis for the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who promised to pare back enforcement of environmental regulations and to open up protected areas to the mining industry. Mr. Bolsonaro, who was sworn in on Jan. 1, flew over the disaster zone on Saturday, deployed troops to assist with the rescue effort and pledged to take swift action to help the victims.
As rescue workers sifted through a sea of sludge, members of this community said they felt helpless.
“We are here just literally hugging people,” said Paula de Deus, a public defender volunteering at the school, adding there was little in the way of information that they could offer.
The dam ruptured shortly after midday on Friday, burying nearby homes and a company cafeteria in a torrent of sludge. Hopes that more survivors would be found were fading fast on Saturday.
At a nearby soccer field, helicopters rushed in and out.
“Every hour that passes makes it harder,” said Maj. Flávio Santiago of the regional Civil Defense office, which was leading the rescue efforts. He added that firefighters were still working at places “where there could be nooks where people are trapped under structures.”
Even before the death toll began to rise, the level of devastation and staggering number of missing people led officials to warn the public to prepare for the worst.
“We now know that the chance of having survivors is minimal and we will probably be rescuing bodies,” said Romeu Zema, governor of the state of Minas Gerais.
Brazilian television broadcast contrasting images of hope and despair on Saturday, with one video showing three men alive on a vehicle submerged in mud, flagging down a helicopter. Other news reports told of a Vale company bus buried in a river of mud, killing the workers inside.
According to Civil Defense, 296 people were confirmed missing when search and rescue efforts were temporarily suspended for the night. Vale published a constantly updating list of employees and contractors it had been unable to contact on its website. But the site did not appear to be accessible on Saturday.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who met with state officials after surveying the area from the air, said he was shaken by the devastation.
“Hard to stand in front of this whole scenario and not get emotional,” he said on Twitter. “We will do what we can to attend to victims, minimize damages, investigate the facts, demand justice and prevent new tragedies like Mariana and Brumadinho, for the good of Brazilians and the environment.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Bolsonaro made a mockery of environmental safeguards and regulations, calling for an end to the “industry” of environmental fines and vowing to open up protected lands — including indigenous territories — to mining concessions.
His minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, came under fire when he was the environment secretary for the state of São Paulo after he presented a proposal making it easier for companies to meet guidelines certifying they are acting in an environmentally responsible manner.
At a news conference on Friday, Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman said he feared there would be many victims, most of them miners.
“The damage from an environmental point of view is less” than the Mariana disaster, he said. “But the human tragedy will be much greater.”
Mr. Schvartsman said the Brumadinho mine had been inactive for three years and had passed an independent safety and environmental inspection as recently as December, 2018.
But a representative from Ibama, the federal environmental protection agency, warned at the time that these dams don’t represent zero risk and any negligence on the part of those conducting risk management, and they rupture, according to local media.
On Saturday, two regional judges ordered Vale to freeze a total of 6 billion reais, about $1.6 billion, to be set aside to pay damages caused by the Brumadinho dam collapse. Environmental groups and activists accused Vale of repeating the errors that had led to the disaster at the Mariana dam.
After touring the zone and meeting with devastated families, Brazil’s attorney general, Raquel Dodge, announced the creation of a task force of prosecutors to investigate the cause of the disaster and potential risks at the nearly 700 mining dams in the state of Minas Gerais.
Some said the latest spill underscored a lack of appropriate regulation.
“History repeats itself,” Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate, said on Twitter. “It’s unacceptable that government and mining companies haven’t learned anything.”
Orignially published in NYT.