Service members, firefighters, civil defense teams, police officers, doctors, and volunteers worked on the greatest rescue operation in Brazil’s history, with more than 300 people missing or dead.
The Brazilian Armed Forces deployed about 190 service members to search-and-rescue missions for one of the greatest disasters in the country. A surge of toxic mud buried everything in its wake as a result of a collapsed dam at an iron ore mining complex, on January 25, 2019.
The dam was part of the Córrego do Feijão Mine, in the city of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais. Employees of the mining company were the first victims. They were working in the mine’s administrative buildings when the dam broke.
An estimated 12 million cubic meters of mud spread over 46 kilometers, destroying nearly everything in its path. The avalanche of mud also reached the Paraopeba River, which is part of the São Francisco River bay that runs across 48 Brazilian cities.
“There’s no doubt that what happened in Brumadinho is the greatest tragedy I ever experienced in my military career,” said Brazilian Military Fire Brigade Lieutenant Raimundo Carlos Dias de Matos, who has 22 years of experience. He was one of 400 members of various Brazilian fire brigades working on the major operation.
By February 25, a month into search-and-rescue missions, authorities found 192 persons alive and 176 dead. About 130 people are still missing. The incident also destroyed the local flora and fauna. The Animal Brigade—a team consisting of veterinarians, zoo technicians, volunteers, and local students—rescued more than 350 animals, including dogs, cats, cattle, birds, and reptiles.
In addition to service members from the Army, Navy, and Brazilian Air Force (FAB, in Portuguese), the operations in the Brumadinho area mobilized service members from the National Guard—a body of the Department of Justice and Public Safety—firefighters, Civil Defense teams, and volunteers. The Eastern Military Command coordinated service members’ work in support of Civil Defense and fire brigade teams. Aerial operations were critical, as the mud still hadn’t hardened 15 days after the disaster, challenging rescuers’ efforts.
“During the first 30 days of operation, we had a daily average of 299 landings and takeoffs. It was the largest air traffic ever recorded in Minas Gerais,” said Lieutenant Pedro Aihara, spokesperson for the Military Fire Brigade of Minas Gerais.
Authorities used a total of 31 aircraft, three from the Armed Forces, in addition to those from fire brigades of different states, Military, Civil and Federal Police, and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources. “This really shows the size of the operation: more than 1,400 aerial missions and the amount of personnel assigned to it,” Lt. Aihara said.
Air traffic management in the region fell under the First Central Communications and Control Group, a unit of FAB’s Airspace Control Department. The group ensured that the various aircraft used in the operation operated in an orderly manner and avoided accidents. Authorities installed a radio station near the collapsed dam area to allow for airspace control.
The need for aerial missions narrowed as the mud solidified. From then on, teams on land vehicles and excavators took over search-and-rescue efforts. In addition to contributing with air transportation, service members secured the area for forensic medical examiners and engineering inspections of facilities with possible explosive materials.
Search operations continue without end in sight. “The fire brigades only have two options. One: We locate all missing people. And the other is a total lack of realistic and biological conditions to recover those bodies,” said Lt. Aihara.