At least 17 people are dead in Brazil following a mudslide unleashed after the collapse of a tailings dam at a mine half owned by BHP Billiton.
More than 50 people were injured, said local fire chief Adao Severino Junior, who added: “The number of missing is going to surpass 40 but that is not official.”
Television footage showed a torrent of industrial muck several hundred metres long that had swamped houses and ripped off their roofs in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
The structure that failed is a tailings dam, used to hold water and discarded minerals from a nearby iron-ore mine operated by Samarco Mineração, a company owned 50-50 by BHP Billiton (BHP) and Brazil’s Vale.
The village of Bento Rodrigues near the dam was practically buried in mud, the fire chief said.
“The situation is grim. It is dark. There is a lot of mud,” Mr Severino said. Rescue operations will continue through the night, he added.
The news website G1 earlier reported between 15 and 16 people had died and 45 were missing.
Television images showed heavy trucks overturned and dozens of homes awash in red mud. On one roof sat a car.
“We flew over the area. All access roads are blocked by the stream of mining waste,” a police officer from the nearby town of Mariana said.
An official with the state’s Civil Defence department added: “It’s very difficult to reach the site by car, there’s a lot of mud. Our rescue tactic is to get as close as possible and cover the rest on foot.”
BHP could only confirm there had been a “serious incident” at the operation.
“BHP Billiton understands that a serious incident has occurred at the Samarco Mineração
iron ore operation in Minas Gerais,” the company said in a statement. “BHP Billiton is concerned for the safety of employees and the local community.”
The company said it would provide more information when it had obtained more details.
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