What followed the Samarco dam collapse

samarco dam collapse A river of mud

This series about the Mariana dam collapse was originally published by Brio, in Portuguese. It was translated by Gustavo Ribeiro and edited by Christine Bootes

Chapter 2: Caboclo Talk

After knowing that the nearby waterfalls had already been engulfed by the mud, Toninho Papagaio hurried back to the bar to tell the so-called “situation room” that the mud was coming – and soon. Around midnight, only four people were left at Nô’s bar: Mayor Magalhães, City Council Speaker Leleca, the owner of the city’s gas station, Virgílio Romualdo (known as Gilim), and the owner of the bar, Nô Totozinho – a nickname for Lademir Antônio Alves.

After hearing about the situation’s severity, the Mayor decided to take a chance and asked Papagaio for a favor: warn as many people as possible about the danger to come. Since his aides had already returned home, the Mayor had no one but the cab driver to knock on hundreds of doors. In his Renault Logan, Papagaio drove as fast as he could throughout the town, honking, yelling – doing everything possible to create noise and wake everyone up. A few decided to see what the hell is going on, while others were angry for being disturbed during their sleep. One man even wanted to literally hit Papagaio.

The cab driver reached the area where the Gualaxo and Carmo rivers meet, forming a T-shape. There, he found the house of Rômulo Gonçalves and his family. The property was divided in half: a bar was situated at the front, whereas the house of Gonçalves, his wife, and their three children was further back. Papagaio knew that they would be the first to be hit by the encroaching mudslide.

But Gonçalves didn’t seem to believe what he was told. No, he told the cab driver, this could only be some kind of joke. He would only leave his property if the Mayor himself were to come to his doorstep and ask him to. Otherwise, he wouldn’t move. “Prepare, then, as the river will swallow you all,” replied Papagaio, giving up and getting into his car, when Rosilene, a neighbor, started shouting. Her sister Beatriz had just called, saying that the water had invaded her porch.

Barra Longa is a small city; everyone knows where everyone else lives. Papagaio, of course, knew where Beatriz lived. He also knew that for the water to reach her house, its levels would have had to rise by 8 meters (26 feet). He did the math again. And again. And yes, that was it: the water was at least 8 meters high. Beatriz’s words left Papagaio deeply unsettled. He drove back to the town square, trembling with fear, honking and shouting to everyone, trying to warn them about the imminent danger.

The driver found Nô closing down his bar and arranging chairs, and offered him a piece of advice: put his freezers in a safer place, just in case the water reaches that point. The bar owner decides to heed his advice. While Nô completed the last of his cleaning, Papagaio whispered into the Mayor’s ears: “Listen to me,” he said, “the water has reached Beatriz’s porch. Her porch.”

The message was clear for the Mayor: the water would reach the town square, and most of the surrounding houses were in grave danger. With no time for an articulate and official reaction, Magalhães gave Papagaio the green light to do whatever possible to warn residents. Among those present in the “situation room” at Nô’s Bar, there was no consensual interpretation about the consequences of water getting to the town square. The police captain, Antônio Alcides, believed that it wouldn’t come quickly – and even if it did, he thought, the force of the water’s velocity couldn’t be that powerful. He told some cattle breeders not to bother moving their animals – it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Meanwhile, Papagaio arrived at the Morro Vermelho neighborhood, where most of the houses by the Carmo River were situated. This time, however, he wasn’t there to offer any meat. He came instead with alarming news, honking, shouting into the middle of the night. And yet very few people believed his story: he can count about 20 people who took his desperation seriously. Many of them were women, as the residents of house number 130: the student Alice Fernandes Magalhães, 13, and her grandmother, Carmelita.

Upon hearing Papagaio’s rant, Alice got up to check on her neighbors. She began to monitor the river’s level and assisted those who did decide to remove their belongings from their homes. All of this was done under the skeptical watch of neighbors, who laughed at what they considered being a waste of effort.

It had been nearly 10 hours since the dam had collapsed, but there was still no official warning from Samarco to the residents of Barra Longa. This certainly hurt the credibility of the man known as “the parrot,” already not taken very seriously by those in his community. And at that moment, the company’s efforts seemed concentrated at Bento Rodrigues – which had then already been swallowed by the mud river.

Barra Longa, while the first city after Mariana on the mud’s route, inexplicably went under the authorities’ radar. No helicopter or an official car had come to remove residents. Life just continued, as though it were an ordinary day. While great danger drew closer to them, Barra Longa’s residents lived in ignorance.

There were some factors contributing to the high levels of skepticism in Barra Longa. One of them was the Carmo River, which was at the lowest level residents could remember – not exactly a menacing force of nature. And besides, the region was full of myths surrounding the river, and no myth was bigger than the legend of the Cabloco d’agua (literally the Water Caboclo. A caboclo is a Brazilian of mixed white and Indian or Indian and black ancestry).

The Water Caboclo was a monstrous thing – a horrifying half-human, half-gorilla creature – that lived in the Carmo River waters, attacking cattle breeders and nearby residents. Large and brown, according to the legend, he would make a terrifying whistle noise while hiding in the river to attack. When jumping into the water, the Caboclo was capable of making more noise than an elephant. Old folks used to say that it captured and ate children walking by the river. It had killed two steers from a local settler. Another 43 people swear on their lives that they themselves have spotted the Caboclo. One of them was farmer Antônio Felipe de Resende, 85, whose leg was allegedly pulled by the Caboclo.

The presence of the monster in the town’s collective imagination was easily felt. There was even a monument dedicated in its honor at the entrance of Barra Longa, and the monster is a recurring theme for school essays. In fact, the town even has a reward for hunters who could capture it. Three years ago, the more courageous cattle breeders decided to ambush the Caboclo. Traps with sensors and filled with the scent of flesh were spread throughout the Carmo River to attract the monster. All of them failed. The terror spread by the Water Caboclo was even on national news in 2011 (as a joke report, we should add), but it had not been seen in a while. Maybe, some said, he had moved away from the Carmo River in search of a new territory.

But after weeks of drought, even the legend of the Water Caboclo seemed more credible than the idea of a mud river washing out Barra Longa.

Around two in the morning, most residents were doing what they normally did at that time of night: they were sound asleep. But just a few minutes after the clock struck two, branches on nearby bamboo trees began to snap. These crackling sounds were accompanied by the smell of something rotting. Soon, people began to awaken from the unsettling noises of ducks and geese fighting for the lives in the encroaching mud river.

Suddenly, the town’s square was taken over by roughly 100 people all in pajamas. They looked bewilderedly towards the river. Big, brown, and with a terrifying whistle. It wasn’t the Water Caboclo: it was Samarco’s mud.

samarco dam collapse
The devastated Rio Doce

“It Was An Ungodly Thing”

Gas canisters, trucks, washing machines, capybaras, trees. By four in the morning, all of this – and more – had passed through the square. The Carmo River, which just a few hours prior didn’t even reach people’s knees, had now risen to over six meters high (20 feet). For Toninho Papagaio, it looked like the work of the Water Caboclo. “There had to be a force pumping all that water. It was an ungodly thing.”

The spectacle of destruction hypnotized the residents of Barra Longa. They simply stood by the square, watching, paralyzed, as the river advanced with fury, emitting hideous noises as it tore through their town. This was something they had never before witnessed. Some people described, oddly enough, as a blend between the mechanical whir of a helicopter and the angry growl of tigers in a cave.

Toninho Papagaio awoke from his stupor by the screams of Antônio Riso, the owner of a local restaurant, who was yelling for help to save his chairs and tables. The water was just shy of reaching the knees.

In other neighborhoods, the rule was every man for himself. At the meeting point for the Gualaxo do Norte and the Carmo rivers, thousands of gas canisters begin to accumulate by the riverbanks.  Some risk their lives by trying to reach them – they don’t want to waste the opportunity of securing valuable goods that could be later resold.

In the house of Rômulo Gonçalves, the man who didn’t believe Toninho Papagaio’s warning, the water was already invading the kitchen. The toilet had turned into a water fountain, and the walls in the backyard were beginning to crumble. The river was indeed swallowing everything in its path – just like the warning had predicted. Gonçalves finally surrendered to the river’s strength and fled with his family, but left everything in his bar behind – and around USD 80,000 worth of food and beverage were lost when the mud overtook his property.

Meanwhile in the Morro Vermelho neighborhood, the water had already reached people’s chests. Milk producer Sônia Lana observed helplessly as the river advanced with fury. Tears were gathering in her eyes when she decided to leave her house, along with her niece and her husband, and head in the direction of a hill, the highest point she can quickly reach. Lana still has memories of the great flood of 1976.

After the mud had awoken the entire town, people were scattered across the higher parts of Barra Longa. Some were trapped in their homes with little possibility of reaching safety. Dozens of people stayed up through the night in the hope that the big, brown, fetid animal crushing their town would finally retreat. It didn’t, of course, but around 6:30 that morning the river’s level finally began to stabilize. At that time, the brown water had reached the roofs of houses – it covered bridges, even treetops. Everything had been washed in brown, Barra Langa itself had become a sea of brown, and it would remain so for the following three days.

Read the original version, in Portuguese
Maria Paola de Salvo

Maria Paola is a journalist and holds a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics. She is a Communications Manager at Global Health Strategies.

Karla Mendes

Karla holds a Master’s degree in Investigative and Data Journalism from the University of King’s College (Canada). She currently works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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