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Brazilian mine disaster: search intensifies for 19 missing

Searchers in Brazil used small airplanes and a drone Saturday to look for 19 people confirmed as missing after a village was inundated with mud from an iron ore mine where two dams burst on Thursday.

Death toll reduced to 1 but 19 remain unaccounted for after torrent of mud inundates village

A car and two dogs can be seen on the roofs of destroyed houses in Bento Rodrigues, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, after two dams at a nearby iron ore mine burst on Thursday. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Searchers in Brazil used small airplanes and a drone Saturday to look for 19 people confirmed as missing after a village was inundated with mud from an iron ore mine where two dams burst on Thursday

At the same time, authorities lowered the official death count to one from two.

The fire department said officials were now not sure that a second body, which was found 100 kilometres from the site of the accident, was a victim. It said those missing included 13 mine workers and six residents of Bento Rodrigues, which was overrun with mud and water. Earlier Saturday, 23 people had been listed as missing.

Bras Azevedo, secretary of social defence in the nearby city of Mariana, told The Associated Press that authorities had to be cautious in sorting out exactly how many people were missing or dead. "There are still people in isolated areas," he said. "They could be the ones we are looking for."

The torrent of mud came without warning Thursday afternoon when two dams breached for reasons that investigators had not yet determined.

An injured dog is rescued in Bento Rodrigues following a mudslide that swept through the village. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

People in Bento Rodrigues downhill from the dams said a deafening clap was the only hint they got that a sea of viscous, clay-red mud was on its way. The sound of the two dams bursting at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil's central Minas Gerais state sent the approximately 600 residents running for higher ground.

"When I went outside there were already people running uphill saying the dam burst," Joaquim Dutra said. "All I did was close my house and run to the top."

Dirce da Silva Mendes, a mother of two, told a story heard repeatedly from survivors.

"We lost a lot of things," she said Saturday. "At the moment we removed the last household appliance, the mud had taken over the whole house. It also destroyed our orange trees, our fig trees. It is all gone. It was so quick."

Sheltered at gym

The accident sent an estimated 62 million cubic metres of water and iron ore tailings flooding into the village, which is seven kilometres downhill from the mine, officials said Friday.

Since Friday, hundreds of people have taken shelter in a gym in Mariana as donations of food, clothing and mattresses pour in. Many of the survivors have injuries to their feet, which they suffered while fleeing their houses barefoot and trekking through the devastated terrain and then on to scorching asphalt.

The public prosecutor's office has said it may file criminal charges against Samarco, which is jointly owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale and Australia's BHP Billiton, over the facility's lack of an emergency siren.

But Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi said that as far as he knows Brazilian law doesn't require an emergency alarm for dam failures, and that authorities had approved the company's emergency response plan. He also worked to dispel fears that the mud contained toxins that could contaminate the land and area rivers.

The mayor's office in Mariana said Samarco officials assured them the mining company would pay for the damages, but did not provide details.

A girl runs between mattresses inside a sports arena in Mariana, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, where residents of Bento Rodrigues are taking refuge after a sea of mud and iron ore tailings destroyed the village. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

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