BRUMADINHO, Brazil – It was exactly 12.28 pm when a tailings dam at Brazilian mining giant Vale’s Corrego do Feijão iron-ore mine collapsed, triggering a mudslide that buried homes on the outskirts of this southeastern town and left 270 people dead.
A year later, 11 people remain missing and a sense of anguish and distress persists among the survivors and the relatives of the victims.
Today, the Corrego do Feijao mine complex is a veritable ghost town where plants and grass cover part of a landscape where rescue workers still search for bodies under the dried mud.
Among those still living there is Atamaio Ferreira, who had provided services to Vale as a security guard. He steered clear of danger on that fateful day by a matter of hours, but his sister and several other family members perished on that fateful Jan. 25, 2019.
“My wife and I are in treatment. We’re taking medication. We go to the psychologist. The pain has subsided a little but it still hurts ... It hurts a lot,” he said in an interview with EFE.
Sebastiao Gomes, one of the survivors of the tragedy, also is trying to put his life back together again.
It was shortly after noon when he heard a thunderous roar about 300 meters (985 feet) from where he was working. He initially thought a truck had exploded but then quickly realized that an avalanche of mud, water and tailings (byproducts of ore mining) was heading in his direction.
He climbed into a truck being driven by one of his colleagues and the two managed to flee to safety.
“That was terrifying. I thought I was going to die. My friend and I couldn’t believe what was happening. We started turning this way and that way and finally were able to get away. We were rescued by a helicopter,” Gomes told EFE in a phone interview.
Many of his co-workers died that day. Others are still missing, among them a nurse named Angelita and a woman who worked in an administrative role for Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore producer and exporter.
“There’s a sense of sadness and anguish,” said the 54-year-old Gomes, who has written a book about the traumatic experience.
Rescue personnel have worked non-stop since the day of the tailings dam collapse and remain determined to find every last victim.
“We’ll keep working and have no plans to conclude (the operations) until we’ve found the 11 victims who are still missing,” Lt. Douglas Constantino, spokesman for the Minas Gerais state’s fire department, said in an interview with EFE.
The 49-year-old Ferreira refuses to use the term “accident,” insisting that what happened outside the town of Brumadinho was a “crime” and entirely avoidable.
“They killed people who were working. From my point of view, it was a premeditated crime. This wasn’t an accident ... this dam had been doomed to collapse for years,” he said.
Brazil’s National Mining Agency said in a technical report on the dam collapse that it had not been informed by Vale about a series of problems with a drainage system.
It added that those failings on the part of the mining company prevented the agency from taking precautionary measures that would have averted the tragedy.
No one has been convicted over the collapse, but Brazilian prosecutors this week leveled homicide charges against 16 executives at Vale and Germany’s TUV SUD, an auditing company that months before the disaster had certified the tailings dam as safe.
Among the 11 Vale executives who were charged was former CEO Fabio Schvartsman.
Even so, Ferreira believes the rich and powerful are above the law in Brazil and that no one will end up behind bars.
“The law in Brazil can be summed up in the following phrase: Those with the least cry the most. Because it’s been a year and no one has faced trial or been arrested. I don’t think anyone’s going to jail,” he said.
Gomes, for his part, said he is optimistic and believes the wheels of justice are turning, although he agrees with Ferreira that the tailings dam collapse that buried homes outside Brumadinho could have been avoided.