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Search for Brazil dam survivors renews as death toll hits 58

A spokesman for the state civil defense agency said the death toll in Friday's dam disaster was expected to continue rising.
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BRUMADINHO, Brazil — Brazilian rescuers searched into the night on Sunday for hundreds of people missing after a burst mining dam triggered a deadly mudslide. The death toll rose to 58 people and was expected to keep climbing more than two days after the disaster.

Rescuers worked past sunset to search a bus that is thought to have bodies inside it and a home where three bodies were discovered, Pedro Aihara, a spokesman or the state fire department, told reporters.

The collapsed dam at Vale SA's Corrego do Feijao mine buried mining facilities and nearby homes in the town of Brumadinho, killing dozens and leaving the community in shock.

"Until the last body is found, the fire department is acting on the possibility there could be people alive," Aihara told reporters. "Obviously, given the nature of the accident, as time passes, this chance will go down."

After announcing the latest number of confirmed deaths, Flavio Godinho, a spokesman for the state civil defense agency, told reporters that he expected the death toll to continue rising.

Just more than 300 people were still missing, with the list of those unaccounted for being constantly updated, Godinho said. Most of the missing are presumed dead, officials said.

The cause of the dam burst remained unclear. Recent inspections didn't indicate any problems, according to the German firm that conducted the inspection.

Brumadinho Mayor Avimar de Melo Barcelos blasted Vale for being "careless and incompetent, blaming the mining company for the tragedy and the state of Minas Gerais for poor oversight. He vowed to fine the miner $26.5 million.

Image: Brazil dam collapse
Mud and waste from the dam spill blocks a street in Brumadinho in Minas Gerais state in southeast Brazil on Saturday.Yuri Edmundo / EPA

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said in a television interview on Sunday that the disaster happened even though the company followed experts' safety recommendations.

"I'm not a mining technician. I followed the technicians' advice, and you see what happened. It didn't work," Schvartsman said. "We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn't do it."

Schvartsman promised "to go above and beyond any national or international standards. ... We will create a cushion of safety far superior to what we have today to guarantee this never happens again."

In 2015, a tailings dam collapsed at an iron ore mine belonging to Samarco Mineracao SA, a Vale joint venture with BHP Group, less than 60 miles to the east. The resulting torrent of toxic mud killed 19 people, buried a small village and contaminated a major river in Brazil's worst environmental disaster on record.

Fears of another dam burst in Brumadinho on Sunday triggered evacuation sirens before dawn, adding to the anxiety of residents waiting for word about lost relatives and friends.

Firefighters halted searching and evacuated thousands of people from their homes until the afternoon, when civil defense authorities ruled out the risk of another dam burst, calling off the evacuation and reinstating search-and-rescue efforts.

Renato Maia, 44, a salesman whose best friend's daughter remained missing, fled his home in panic early Sunday and waited for hours with his wife at a police barricade on the outskirts of town.

"We're all fed up with Vale ... and this is really adding to the tension," he said. "It was a huge tragedy, and now we don't know what might come next."

Image: Brazil dam collapse
Military firefighters carry the remains a victim recovered a day after the collapse of a dam in the town of Brumadinho in southeastern Brazil, on Jan. 26, 2019.Douglas Magno / AFP - Getty Images

The Brazilian government ordered Vale to halt operations at the Corrego do Feijao mining complex. On Sunday, courts nearly doubled to 11 billion reais the amount of Vale assets frozen in anticipation of damages and fines.