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Searching for her son: A mother's quest in Brazil dam breach

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2019 file photo, firefighters pull a body from the mud days after the Vale mining company's dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil. The mud smelled of blood and bodies in decomposition. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

By LEO CORREA, Associated Press
BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AP) — My first day covering the devastating dam collapse in southeastern Brazil, I was on the phone with my editor when a crying woman approached me.
“Sir, sir, can you help me to find my son?” she asked, looking at me with glassy eyes that seemed empty. “Do you know where my son is?”
I didn’t know what to say. Then I remembered the support center that authorities had set up downtown and told her to go there. She said she had already been there.
Another son of this woman then approached, and the two walked off.
As I watched them go, I wished I had reacted differently, thought of something better to say, but I didn’t know what.
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EDITOR’S NOTE — Photographer Leo Correa traveled to Brumadinho on assignment for The Associated Press on the day that a mining dam collapsed. He spent nearly a week documenting the tragedy.
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This family was like hundreds of others, needing to hope that a loved one was still alive while fearing the worst.
The Jan. 25 breach of the dam, at an iron ore mine owned and operated by the giant Brazilian company Vale SA, unleashed tens of thousands of pounds (kilograms) of reddish-brown mud over a wide area in Brumadinho.
It buried a Vale lunchroom, where hundreds of employees were believed to be eating, and also clobbered several other company buildings and parts of the city, including an inn. Authorities have recovered more than 120 bodies so far, and more than 200 people remain missing.
Shortly after the encounter with the woman, I went to an area where a fresh produce market had been plastered with mud. Rescuers were removing a body so badly crushed it fit in a basket used to carry fruit.
It was humid (it’s summer in Brazil), and the mounds of mud, laden with discharge from the mine, produced a stench that reminded me of blood.
Two days later, I went to an area called Corrego do Feijao, which got the brunt of the deluge. Rescuers had found a bus with an unknown number of bodies inside.
About 20 firefighters treaded carefully over the mud, several yards (meters) deep, so as not to get trapped themselves. Helicopters hovered above, lowering tools to the men who used them to cut open smashed metal. After about eight hours, they removed the first body.
While watching the operation, I saw several helicopters fly by, each carrying one body. I stopped counting at 10.
The mud again smelled like blood, but now there was also a strong stench of decomposing corpses.
The following day, at the support center, I saw the woman from the first day.
Malvina Firmina Nunes, a 61-year-old house cleaner, had four adult children. She was still trying to locate her son, Peterson Nunes Ribeiro, 35, who had been working in equipment distribution at the mine complex.
At the center, two women tried to calm Nunes.
“I called him on the phone, but he didn’t answer me,” she said. “I want to talk to him, but he doesn’t answer. Where is my son?”
This time, I cried.
The son who I had seen with Nunes that first day, Fernando, 29, told me they still had no news of his brother.
The next day, I visited their home, which sits in a neighboring village called Tejuco, where another mine operates.
Nunes told me about Peterson, who had finally gotten a job at the mine complex in Brumadinho nine months ago after being unemployed. He had three children and a longtime partner.
Now, everybody in the family fears mines, particularly the one next to their home. Their grief was painful to watch.
“Take me in his place, Lord, take me!” Nunes said, standing by the window. “I have already lived too much. I don’t want to live anymore.”
In another moment, Nunes got down on her knees and began praying while Fernando looked on, crying.
That day, I accompanied Fernando to an area destroyed by mud that he had gone to before in search of his brother. He wanted to see if rescuers had found him. They had not.
Together, we watched another recovery operation, another body being pulled out by helicopter.
“I will find my brother,” Fernando said.
He called Vale “murderers.”
Vale’s chief executive has acknowledged that its safeguards fell short.
When we returned home, Fernando put his mom in bed.
“Leo, stay here,” Nunes pleaded as I was about to leave. “Why don’t you sleep here, stay with us in our home? I lost one son. But who knows, perhaps today I have gained another son?”
Two days later, Fernando told me his brother’s body had been found.
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Leo Correa on Twitter: twitter.com/Leo_Correa