Brazilian authorities say the dam collapsed in the city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state.

An aerial view shows flooding triggered by a collapsed dam near Brumadinho, Brazil. Brazilian mining company Vale SA said it didn’t yet have information on deaths or injuries at the dam. January 25, 2019.
An aerial view shows flooding triggered by a collapsed dam near Brumadinho, Brazil. Brazilian mining company Vale SA said it didn’t yet have information on deaths or injuries at the dam. January 25, 2019. (John Salangsang/Invision / AP)

A dam collapse in southeast Brazil unleashed a torrent of mud on a riverside town and surrounding farmland on Friday, destroying houses, leaving at least seven dead among 200 people missing, according to officials.

The tailings dam holding mine waste owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale, broke apart "very violently, very suddenly," sending a massive torrent of mud over the complex where 300 mine employees were working, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman told a news conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The dam in Minas Gerais state burst at lunchtime, burying a lunch room. The company said that tailings have reached the community of Vila Ferteco and an administrative office. 

Schvartsman said 100 out of 300 employees were accounted for and he expected more fatalities than the Samarco dam failure in which 19 people died.

In a statement, the fire service said it confirmed "the disappearance of approximately 200 people."

The deluge rumbled on to the nearby town of Brumadinho population 39,000 — located southwest of the city of Belo Horizonte, cutting a swath through vegetation, farmland and roads, and impeding access to the area. 

The death toll was expected to go higher, as rescue teams scoured through the big disaster zone overnight into Saturday.

Parts of the city of Belo Horizonte, the state capital, were evacuated and local firefighters were rescuing people by helicopter and ground vehicles.

President Jair Bolsonaro announced he will fly over the area affected by the dam burst to evaluate damage and decide on measures to be taken.

Bolsonaro, in an interview with Brumadinho's Radio Regional FM, said he "deeply regretted" the dam collapse, which "is possibly more serious than thought" because it might have swept away Vale workers.

His government, facing its first big emergency since taking office in the new year, set up urgent coordination between the defence, environment and mining ministries to bolster operations by the state of Minas Gerais. Bolsonaro is also expected to undergo surgery on Monday to remove a colostomy bag, his spokesman said.

A road is blocked after a dam collapsed near Brumadinho, Brazil. January 25, 2019.
A road is blocked after a dam collapsed near Brumadinho, Brazil. January 25, 2019. (AP)

People stuck in mud 

TV images showed helicopters being used to rescue people stuck in mud, and a wide swath of destruction carved through vegetation and farmland, in which damaged and destroyed houses were dotted.

Four people were taken to hospital and were in stable condition.

A separate statement by the environment ministry said, "the initial preoccupation of the federal government is the rescue of victims, giving support to the region, and protecting water-catchment areas."

Vale did not say what caused the collapse.

Shares in Vale fell around 10 percent in New York trading. The Sao Paulo stock market was closed on Friday for a holiday.

Friday's disaster recalled trauma from the 2015 Samarco dam break in a different part of Minas Gerais, in Mariana.

That accident three years ago released millions of tons of toxic iron waste along hundreds of kilometres, causing what is considered the country's worst environmental disaster. 

Vale was joint operator of that dam, along with the Anglo-Australian group BHP.

Evacuations

An emergency team from the Ibama environmental protection agency had been dispatched to the zone impacted by Friday's dam collapse to determine the damage, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told the G1 news website. He was to visit Brumaldinho late Friday.

Ibama estimated that the collapse had released a million tons of water and mud, according to the Estadao newspaper.

One photographer said police had blocked access roads to Brumadinho.

Civil defence officials said people living in low-lying areas in the town had been evacuated.

Brumadinho's municipality issued an alert on social media warning residents to move away from the Paraopeba river that the dam had been holding back.

The town is best known to tourists for Inhotim, an outdoor contemporary art museum, which was evacuated as a precaution. The venue receives 35,000 visitors a month.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies