One year after Brazil’s Brumadinho dam disaster the mud may be dry but the memories of the Israeli Home Front Command’s rescuers are still fresh.
“The story of the tragedy in Brazil is one we haven’t experienced or dealt with in the past,” the commander of Israel’s national search and rescue unit, Col. (res.) Golan Vach told The Jerusalem Post.
“How do you find people in mud? We brought the best equipment and people in the world,” Vach said.
Israel’s delegation to Brazil included some 130 soldiers and officers, as well as 70 reservists from the Home Front Command, among them engineering experts, doctors and search and rescue personnel, firefighters. Troops from the Navy’s underwater missions unit (YALTAM 707) also took part in the mission, as well as a delegation from ZAKA rescue services.
The dam, owned by the Vale mining company outside the town of Brumadinho, collapsed last January, inundating the nearby community in a tsunami of reddish-brown sludge. While the official death toll is 259, firefighters are still picking through the dried mud for the bodies of 11 people who are listed as missing but are certainly dead.
It was the first delegation that Master Sergeant Alon Uminer, a building engineer by trade, took part in.
“It was a Saturday night right after Shabbat and I looked on my phone and saw a text to come to the unit right away,” he recounted. But, despite having trained for this for many years, “It was really stressful because you don’t know what to expect.”
Rescuer Lt. Yaara Dolev had been with friends at home when she got a telephone call from her commanding officer to return to base within the two hours.
“I spent so many years preparing for this, but when it came it was a total surprise,” she said. “I only really believed that we were going the moment we took off.”
After the 15-hour-long flight from Israel to Brazil and then to the site itself, “the moment we got to the scene it was a serious shock,” Uminer said. “You’re looking at a scene where there used to be a lot of buildings and you are looking at hell, at a lot of wet mud. All you can think about is how am I going to deal with this?”
According to Dolev, while the delegation knew in general about the dam collapse and that there were many people were missing, it was hard to know what to expect because “it was totally different than what we usually dealt with.”
“You come full of adrenaline to work,” she said. “We knew ahead of time that it wouldn’t be simple... but when we landed the locals were really happy that the Israeli delegation came and we understood the meaning of what we were doing.”
Once they arrived to the scene, Uminer, who acted as a team leader during the operation, explained that the team divided themselves up to begin digging to see if they could find “something, or find someone.”
This time last year, the IDF sent a humanitarian aid delegation to #Brazil after a dam collapsed in Brumadinho.Brazil, we were proud to be by your side. pic.twitter.com/L0BAdh7eN3— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) January 30, 2020
“You want to find something but at the same time, it was my first time dealing with bodies like this... I remembered in one spot that used to be the bathroom of the dining hall we found a right-leg... it was shocking but then we continued to find lots of body parts.
Time is very important in search and rescue operations, and it’s not good to waste time anywhere,” he said.
Locals had explained to the delegation that the miners had likely been eating lunch at the time of the tragedy and Dolev, who found several bodies, said that rescuers not only found body parts but belongings of those who were missing.
“It really made us understand that we were looking for them,” she said. “To work in this kind of environment is really hard, especially for those who’ve never done this before. But at the end of the day, our mission is to save lives.”
The Israeli delegation brought with them 16 tons of advanced equipment including a mobile signal localization system, high-quality submarine sonar, voice/echo detectors and drones. In addition to the advanced equipment, the team - known for thinking outside the box - also used nature to find bodies.
“We used satellites in the sky and flies on the ground,” Vach said, adding that the team found 35 bodies in 48 hours from flies, dogs and human creativity.
“The end of a mission in Israel is a funeral, we never leave people in the field,” he said.
A year after the tragedy, rescuers are still using the team’s map to find bodies.
Israel has often aided countries struck by natural disasters, sending teams from the IDF Medical Corps and Home Front Command to provide search and rescue and medical aid in field hospitals in countries including Mexico, Haiti, the Philippines, Japan, Turkey and Nepal.
But, Uminer said, “every natural tragedy is different, and you never know what you will have to deal with. We are more used to dealing with earthquakes with buildings which have crumbled and not like what we dealt with in Brazil.”
“This tragedy was a natural disaster that we never dealt with before. When we got there it was chaos, but at the end of our time there we had gotten better and better and understood what we were dealing with. We helped the local rescuers look in a more organized fashion with GPS and a map where all the buildings had been,” he added.
Since the tragedy, the IDF has sent delegations twice to Brazil.
“We went in May to Rio de Janeiro and in September to the area to give equipment to local researchers there,” Vach said, adding that information continues to be shared.
“It was the beginning of great cooperation between our two countries... We invited them to Israel to take part in an international seminar in October, which will focus on how to use intelligence during emergency scenarios.”
A year later, all rescuers are still touched by their experience.
Vach said the tragedy is still “very sensitive” for those who lost loved ones and for his troops who took part. “The troops dealt with it in a very meaningful way, and they will take many aspects of it with them in the future,” he said.
“I understood the proportions on life. That tragedies can happen to anyone, at any time,” Uminer said. “Some people said the delegation was political, but I don’t see it that way. I went to do a mission and save people’s lives and bring back people so the family can have a grave. It’s very, very meaningful.
“We know that we have to give all our all wherever we go,” Dolev said. “While I am serving in a different position now, I will do whatever I can to help others who need my help. It’s my calling, my responsibility.”