More than 50 were injured in the disaster in southeastern Minas Gerais state yesterday, said Adao Severino Junior, fire chief in the city of Mariana.

The number of missing looks set to surpass 40 but this is not official yet, he added. Television footage showed a torrent of muck several hundred metres long that had swamped houses and ripped off their roofs.

The mud reached the intact roofs of some houses, atop of which stranded people waited to be rescued. Some homes seemed to have been swept hundreds of meters by the rushing wall of

The village of Bento Rodrigues near the dam is practically buried, the fire chief said."The situation is grim. It is dark. There is a lot of mud," Severino said. "There is no way to survive under that material."

The nearby area is sparsely populated, mainly by people who work for the mining company. Civil defense teams have been dispatched but it is hard to reach the affected area because of all the mud, Minas Gerais governor Fernando Pimentel said.

The dam broke about 4:20pm (local time) between the old colonial towns of Ouro Preto and Mariana, in a major mining region.

Firefighters and other emergency teams rushed to the scene and residents were ordered to evacuate. Minas Gerais has been the main mining hub of Brazil since the 16th century. First came gold, then mining of iron ore, other minerals and semi-precious stones.

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