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By Jeffrey T. Lewis, Samantha Pearson and Paulo Trevisani
SÃO PAULO -- Rescue workers raced Friday to find around 200 people feared buried under mud in southeastern Brazil after a dam belonging to miner Vale burst, engulfing homes, cars, and the company's own offices.
Brazil's Vale, the world's largest iron ore producer, said the majority of victims were the company's own employees, adding that it had only accounted for 100 of the estimated 300 workers at the site so far. Authorities said they had recovered seven bodies as of Friday evening.
A sea of mud swept through parts of the city of Brumadinho, a popular tourist base for Brazil's vast Inhotim open-air art museum in Minas Gerais state, thundering through Vale's offices as workers sat down to lunch.
The incident comes less than four years after another dam owned jointly by Vale and BHP Group in the same state also burst, killing 19 people and leaving hundreds homeless in one of the country's worst environmental disasters.
Comparing the disasters, Fabio Schvartsman, Vale's chief executive, said he feared a "terrible human tragedy" this time, but added there would likely be less environmental damage than in 2015 because the waste material was more solid and wouldn't spread as far. He gave no details about the possible cause of the incident.
As rescue workers heaved people out of the mud, Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro called together his three-week-old administration for a crisis meeting in Brasília, the capital. In 2015, former President Dilma Rousseff was deeply criticized for taking too long to respond when Vale's dam burst at Mariana, about a three-hour drive away from Brumadinho.
"Our greatest concern at this moment is to deal with the victims of this great tragedy," Mr. Bolsonaro said on Twitter. He said he had sent troops and several ministers to the region and would travel to the site Saturday morning.
In Brumadinho, relatives of victims scrambled to get information from the authorities, who set up a crisis center at the local university. Panic and desperation was quickly turning to anger with few Vale representatives or authorities around to help.
Jose Ferreira said his sister's husband, who worked for one of Vale's contractors, was still missing. "My sister is devastated...these companies are destroying the environment to the point they are destroying lives," said Mr. Ferreira, 34.
Vale's Mr. Schvartsman said the dam that burst Friday had been out of operation for the past three years and was in the process of being dismantled.
The company said that spillage also reached the community of Vila Ferteco.
U.S.-listed shares of Vale plunged as much as 10% after the accident. Brazil's stock market was closed for a public holiday.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 25, 2019 19:21 ET (00:21 GMT)
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