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Up To 300 Feared Dead After Brazil Dam Burst Unleashes Mud

The death toll from the collapse of a dam holding back mine waste in south-eastern Brazil has risen to 40, and hope is fading for the estimated 300 still missing.

Scores of families in the city desperately awaited word on their loved ones, but authorities said there was little chance of finding anyone alive.

"Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We're likely to just be recovering bodies," Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais, told local media.

Employees of the mining complex owned and operated by Brazilian mining company Vale were eating lunch on Friday afternoon when the dam gave way, unleashing a sea of reddish-brown mud that knocked over and buried several structures of the company and surrounding areas.

The dam gave way, unleashing a sea of mud .Image: AAP

The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and an occupied Vale administrative office, with some residents barely escaping with their lives.

"I saw all the mud coming down the hill, snapping the trees as it descended. It was a tremendous noise," said a tearful Simone Pedrosa, who lives about 8km from where the dam collapsed.

Pedrosa, 45, and her parents dashed to their car and drove to the highest point in the neighbourhood.

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"If we had gone down the other direction, we would have died," Pedrosa said, adding that she had a feeling "that this was the end of my life".

"I cannot get that noise out of my head," she said.

"It's a trauma ... I'll never forget."

In addition to the 40 bodies recovered as of Saturday afternoon, 23 people were hospitalised, said authorities with the Minas Gerais fire department.

There had been some signs of hope earlier on Saturday when authorities found 43 more people alive. About 300 employees were working when it happened.

Aerial view over mud and waste from the disaster caused by the dam spill in Brumadinho. Image: AAP

Emergency workers suspended their search shortly after nightfall. They planned to resume at first light on Sunday morning. For many, hope was fading to anguish.

"I don't think he is alive," said Joao Bosco, speaking of his cousin, Jorge Luis Ferreira, who worked for Vale.

"Right now I can only hope for a miracle of God."

Vanilza Sueli Oliveira described the wait for news of her nephew as "distressing, maddening".

"Time is passing," she said. "It's been 24 hours already. ... I just don't want to think that he is under the mud."

The rivers of mining waste also raised fears of widespread contamination. According to Vale's website, the waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic.

However a UN report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals".

Family members embrace as rescuers search for survivors. Image: AAP
Recovery efforts are underway as rescuers search for survivors. Image: AAP

Another dam administered by Vale and BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais state, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.

Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish.

An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.

With Reuters