How the worst disaster in Brazilian history happened

How the worst disaster in Brazilian history happened The Mariana tragedy was the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history

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

Chapter 1: Shaking Ground

Renato was happy. He had just found a new job as a truck driver for a contractor under Samarco. A joint venture between the Brazilian Vale and the Anglo-Australian firm BHP Billiton, Samarco is one of Brazil’s largest and most famous mining companies. He had heard that it was a different company. This wasn’t one of those mining sites where you would go, not knowing for sure if you would come back in one piece. Not anymore. Samarco was different, said his colleagues.

Samarco, after all, is Brazil’s 10th biggest exporter. They count among their staff 3,000 direct employees and 3,500 indirect – Renato was one of these indirect employees. He would work at the Germano unit, situated between the historic cities of Mariana and Ouro Preto, in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. The Germano unit is formed by numerous open-air mines, where iron ore is extracted. In these mines, water is added to the iron ore which then becomes a thick pulp that will travel through 400 kilometers of slurry pipes to the coastal state of Espírito Santo. The pulp deemed not good enough to get sent through the pipelines is sent instead to the dams.

Renato’s mission was to drive a truck loaded with iron ore residue to two Samarco dams, Germano and Fundão. These two gigantic, artificial lakes don’t have water, but instead hold a muddy soup-like blend of water, dirt, sand and iron ore residue. He would be paid roughly USD 600 per month for the job.

The morning of November 5, 2015, began like any other. Renato woke at 5:30 in the morning, and by 7 am he was already at the wheel of his truck. It was around 11 am when Renato felt the land under his feet shake. He checked the three radio frequencies used by his company but heard no warnings for anything out of the ordinary. Weird, he thought to himself. As he looked around at his surroundings, nothing stood out. The only sight on the horizon was the barren hills where the mines were located.

Renato’s journey between the cities continued, hearing the usual blasts in the distance from explosives to help along the extraction of the ore from the mountain. But at 1 pm, just after his lunch break, Renato felt another a tremor. Still, there was no alert on the company radio. It wasn’t until 3:30 pm, four and a half hours after he first felt the ground shake, that Renato overheard a desperate voice screaming into the radio:

“For the love of God, run! Dam number one has just collapsed!”.

Dam number one was the Fundão Dam. Until that moment, it contained the equivalent of 21,000 Olympic pools filled with iron ore residue and mud. Renato knew that if the dam were to collapse, the mud lake would engulf everything standing in its way. Suddenly, he started running as fast as he could, his mind blank. Panic began to overtake the mining complex. There was no exit plan for employees, no sirens, no official word from the company. Nothing but the desperate voice overheard at 3:30 pm.

When Renato managed to reach the site’s entrance, he saw a co-worker calling the police in Bento Rodrigues, a district of the city of Mariana – the urban area located closest to the mining site. “Tell residents to leave their homes, the dam has collapsed!” he shouted. But no official warning came from Samarco, even though there was still enough time left to send alerts.

In an ironic twist of fate, at the moment of the dam’s collapse, Samarco’s CEO Ricardo Vescovi was in a workplace safety seminar at the company’s headquarters. After receiving the news, he assembled a team of ten executives to go to the disaster site in the city of Mariana.

The workers at the mining site already knew that, should there be an accident with the mines, Bento Rodrigues would be the most vulnerable district. However, with no contingency plan in place, Samarco instead depended on the goodwill of locals to spread the word of the disaster. One of these individuals was 36-year-old Paula Alves. She jumped on a scooter to head immediately to Bento Rodrigues, honking and shouting for people to leave. “The dam has collapsed! The dam has collapsed!” She didn’t need to say much. Everyone there knew what they had to do – and Paula managed to spare around 400 people from certain death. According to the residents from Bento Rodrigues, however, no official warning ever came from Samarco.

Just minutes after Paula’s efforts, a muddy tsunami spilled out from the dam. Traveling at a speed of 6 kilometers per hour, it picked up everything on its way. Cars, houses, gardens, animals, photographs, memories, entire lives were destroyed in a matter of minutes. Around 62 billion liters were spilled – around 25,000 Olympic pools of mud.

Brazil’s worst environmental disaster was happening.

How the worst disaster in Brazilian history happened

Situation Room In A Bar

The birds of the region were gradually replaced by police and television helicopters, looking for survivors and images of the disaster. Within a matter of minutes, Bento Rodrigues started living a nationally televised tragedy.

The mud advances at a merciless speed. There was too much of it, and it quickly crossed from Bento Rodrigues into the Gualaxo do Norte River, part of the Rio Doce. It began in the city of Ouro Preto, and merges with the Rio do Carmo, right at the heart of Barra Longa, a little town numbering about 6,000 residents.

The clock showed 5 pm when cab driver Antônio Eusébio do Carmo, 56, received a call from his sister Sueli. “My son has just texted me telling that a dam has collapsed in Mariana. There’s a lot of mud, and it’s coming to crush Barra Longa,” she said desperately. Toninho Papagaio, Antônio’s nickname, hung up and immediately opened an internet browser on his smartphone. His stomach sank as he confirmed on Google the news revealed by Sueli – that the dam had collapsed – but found nothing indicating that his city was in danger.

So he turned on the TV and waited for more information. At 8:30, Brazil’s most famous news show began, and the presenter announced: “A dam filled with mining residue has collapsed this afternoon in the central region of the state of Minas Gerais, covering part of the Mariana district with mud. Preliminary investigations so far indicate one death and four injured, but we don’t have any information about missing people.” Images flash across the screen of an unrecognizable Bento Rodrigues.

Toninho did some math and grew calmer. The dam collapse happened five hours prior. Besides, the 60-kilometer distance (37 miles) between Barra Longa and Bento Rodrigues would be too far for the mud to travel. He tried to calm his sister down by explaining his logic, but in his logic ignored exactly how large the volume of residue was that spilled from Samarco’s dam. He believed that even if the mud were to keep advancing, it would travel instead through the region’s valleys and not through the river that merges with Barra Longa.

The several days of droughts prior to November 5 had left the levels of the Rio do Carmo so low that it was possible for someone to walk across it without getting the knees wet. If the river had been full, then the mud had some chance of advancing faster. But the river was so low that even the city kids weren’t scared of it – even daring each other to cross from one side to the other.

Toninho Papagaio – a nickname handed down from his storyteller father who was known around the town as Papagaio, or in English, “the Parrot” – wasn’t worried. Still, he decided to talk to his friend Fernando José Carneiro Magalhães, the town’s mayor.

He found Magalhães around 9:30 at Nô’s Bar – the favorite spot for local authorities to have a drink during the week, and where the closest thing that Barra Longa had to jet-setters would hang out on Saturdays. The mayor had heard nothing about the accident.

At that moment, the President of the City Council burst into the bar. Without uttering a word, he turned on the TV to the station that Toninho had been watching just minutes before. But Magalhães remained skeptical about the danger. He hadn’t received any calls from Samarco, nor from Mariana’s mayor, nor from the police. And neither had the fire alarm sounded.

Just in case, the group began to call up their acquaintances in neighboring towns to get a feel for how big the problem actually was. Nô’s Bar turned into a Situation Room: the men unfolded a map, examined it, and concluded that in the off chance of the mud being able to travel the distance required to reach them, its flow could only come from the Gualaxo do Norte River.

Toninho was in charge of calling the people living by the river. Back in the day, he used to sell fresh meat door-to-door across the region, and still kept the contacts he had gathered. House after house, though, the phone lines kept ringing. This could only mean one of two things: people were either sleeping or had already evacuated their homes.

While Toninho tried to reach his former customers, Samarco’s CEO Ricardo Vescovi published a video of the tragedy on Facebook: “The collapse was identified this afternoon, and Samarco has immediately set an emergency plan in motion. Civil Defense, the Fire Department, and the police, among other institutions, have been alerted. Authorities have already been informed and are assisting locals.”

Despite Vescovi’s words, Barra Longa and other neighboring villages were not included in this emergency plan. In fact, there was no protocol to follow in case the mud reached Barra Longa.

It was only around midnight that Toninho finally received an answer to one of his calls. It was Mrs. Mirtes Gonçalves das Graças. Nine other family members of hers lived in the same region, and she said that, with the exception of her father, all of them had already lost their homes. According to her brothers, the violent river of mud had engulfed bridges and even covered the nearby waterfalls.

This shocked Toninho. As far as he could remember, those falls were over five meters high (23 feet). He recalled the great flood of 1979, the worst in recent history. After days of incessant rain, the water destroyed everything next to the riverbed. If water alone was able to crush the region, then the mud could certainly do the same.

Read the original version, in Portuguese
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.

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.

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