"Where is my son?" One family's pain in the Brazil dam disaster

/ AP

Malvina Firmina Nunes prays on her knees at home in Brumadinho, Brazil, Jan. 30, 2019, while one of her four adult children remains missing following a Vale dam collapsed. AP

Brumadinho, Brazil — 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.

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.

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 of reddish-brown mud over a wide area in Brumadinho.

Brazil dam collapse death toll rises to 34

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 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.

BRAZIL-ACCIDENT-DAM-COLLAPSE
Firefighters recover the body of a victim of Friday's dam collapse at an iron-ore mine belonging to Brazil's giant mining company Vale near the town of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil, Jan. 28, 2019. Getty

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.

Brazil Dam Collapse - Missing Son
Malvina Firmina Nunes and her son Fernando are comforted by friends at their home as they grieve for their missing 35-year-old son and brother, Peterson, after a deadly Vale dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, Jan. 30, 2019. AP

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.

First published on February 5, 2019

© 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Brazil Dam Collapse - Missing Son BRAZIL-ACCIDENT-DAM-COLLAPSE Brazil Dam Collapse - Missing Son

Where are health care and the economy headed in 2019?

Ahead of the president's State of the Union address, "Where Did You Get This Number?" takes a closer look at the state of U.S. health care and the economy

updated 15M ago

Exploding e-cigarette kills Texas man, authorities say

Family members claim hospital didn’t perform needed surgery; FDA has warned about e-cigarette explosions

updated 23M ago

Runner fights off, kills mountain lion in Colorado park

Man was alone and bitten several times, but managed to get himself to a hospital

1H ago

How to watch New England Patriots' Super Bowl LIII victory parade

Unlike the snowy, cold parade two years ago, Tuesday is supposed to be a beautiful day for a championship parade in Boston

4H ago

N.J. becomes 4th state to increase minimum wage

The Garden State joins California, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia in phasing in higher wages

6H ago

Where are health care and the economy headed in 2019?

Ahead of the president's State of the Union address, "Where Did You Get This Number?" takes a closer look at the state of U.S. health care and the economy

updated 15M ago

Federal prosecutors subpoena Trump's inaugural committee

A spokeswoman said the committee intends to cooperate with the inquiry and was reviewing it late Monday

5H ago

9 immigration facts: What you need to know

There's little doubt that immigration will be on the agenda at President Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday night

9H ago

Former supporters call on Virginia gov to resign over racist photo

Gov. Ralph Northam has been under fire since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page emerged

11H ago

IRS was 1.2M refunds behind the day tax season opened

Back in November, the IRS came up with an internal schedule for processing tax refunds — then the shutdown happened

12H ago

"Where is my son?" One family's pain in the Brazil dam disaster

AP photographer documents story of a grieving mother, her family's anguish and anger at the company behind the catastrophe

updated 9M ago

Pope gives historic 1st Mass in birthplace of Islam

Francis ministered to thriving Catholic community in United Arab Emirates as he concluded landmark visit to Arabian Peninsula

1H ago

Arson suspected in deadly Paris apartment building blaze

The fire in a ritzy section of the city sent residents fleeing to the roof or climbing out their windows to escape, authorities said

updated 1M ago

Liam Neeson under fire for comments on race and revenge

Liam Neeson admits in an interview he once had violent thoughts about killing a black person after learning that someone close to him had been raped

13H ago

Jury begins deliberations over fate of infamous drug lord El Chapo

The jury has heard months of testimony about Joaquin Guzman's rise to power as the head of the Sinaloa cartel

10H ago

How to watch New England Patriots' Super Bowl LIII victory parade

Unlike the snowy, cold parade two years ago, Tuesday is supposed to be a beautiful day for a championship parade in Boston

4H ago

Liam Neeson under fire for comments on race and revenge

Liam Neeson admits in an interview he once had violent thoughts about killing a black person after learning that someone close to him had been raped

13H ago

Grammy nominee H.E.R. on seeing her "vision come to life"

At 21 years old, the R&B singer-songwriter is up for five Grammy Awards including best new artist and album of the year

15H ago

Parkland dad who slammed Louis C.K. to attend State of the Union

A grieving father who responded to Louis C.K.'s jokes about the Parkland shooting with a standup routine of his own has been invited to Tuesday's State of the Union address

15H ago

Bettors debate length of Gladys Knight's national anthem

Debate around length of Gladys Knight's rendition of national anthem dominated sports-betting sites after big game

9H ago

Crypto company out $137M after passwords die with owner

The founder's widow said "repeated and diligent searches" for a password have failed

7H ago

Tech investor says Facebook is "terrible for America"

"Zucked" author Roger McNamee says Facebook is a threat to democracy, public health and privacy, and makes everyone vulnerable to bad actors

18H ago

Meteorite appears to hit Cuba

In a tweet, the National Weather Service said its radar "may have detected the meteor" at 1:21 p.m. near Viñales, Cuba

Feb 1

"Lies spread faster than truth" on social media, journalist says

The CEO of Rappler alleged the online news website has been targeted by social media disinformation campaigns after its tough reporting on the government

Feb 1

Possum was living in unused, $1M taxpayer-funded bus

The zero-emission bus was never put into service

Feb 1

Pot for pets? Cannabis products marketed for animals

Some animal lovers are giving the supplements a try, but experts caution they aren't necessarily a good fit for every pet

15H ago

3rd poultry firm recalls chicken on fears of tainted goods

Pilgrim's Pride recall follows Tyson and Perdue moves to stop sales of food possibly tainted with extraneous material

16H ago

Obesity-linked cancers rising for young Americans

Cancers tied to extra weight keep climbing among those aged 25 to 49, a new study finds

11H ago

Bill would eventually make Hawaii first state to ban cigarette sales

Measure would gradually raise minimum age of people allowed to buy them to 100

Feb 4

An end to food allergies?

26 million people, including 6 million kids, are allergic to one food or another, with peanuts producing one of the most severe reactions; might a reversal of medical advice slow or even eliminate the problem?

Feb 3

N.J. becomes 4th state to increase minimum wage

The Garden State joins California, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia in phasing in higher wages

6H ago

GM confirms start of 4,000 white-collar layoffs

Layoffs will impact white-collar workers and are part of the automaker's efforts to reduce headcount

10H ago

Google earnings beat, but shares slip from higher spending

Even as some big problems stalked the search giant last year, its fourth-quarter results outran expectations

11H ago

IRS was 1.2M refunds behind the day tax season opened

Back in November, the IRS came up with an internal schedule for processing tax refunds — then the shutdown happened

12H ago

Charlotte Russe in bankruptcy, will close stores

Failed merchandising efforts and declining sales force fashionistas at Charlotte Russe to seek bankruptcy protection

13H ago

Lawsuit alleges "inhumane" conditions in cold Brooklyn jail

A lawsuit filed Monday says a weeklong power failure at a federal jail in New York City caused "inhumane conditions" for inmates

10H ago

Judge lets church shooting victims sue gun retailer

Families of those killed in the 2017 massacre in Sutherland Springs argue Academy Sport & Outdoors is liable

11H ago

Jury begins deliberations over fate of infamous drug lord El Chapo

The jury has heard months of testimony about Joaquin Guzman's rise to power as the head of the Sinaloa cartel

10H ago

Pregnant woman stabbed to death in NYC apartment lobby

Candle burned outside the apartment building where 35-year-old real estate agent Jennifer Irigoyen was savagely stabbed to death.

15H ago

Ex-MMA fighter facing murder charges is captured

Authorities spent hours searching for Cedric Joseph Marks after he fled a prisoner transport van at a McDonald's in Texas

Feb 4