IDF delegation in Brazil: Situation unlike anything we've seen before

Maj. Tamir Hazan tells 'Post' that IDF equipment and rescue dogs have helped uncover 35 bodies at disaster site

The IDF delegation helping recover bodies after a dam disaster in Brazil  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
The IDF delegation helping recover bodies after a dam disaster in Brazil
The aftermath of a burst dam disaster in Brumadinho, Brazil, is unlike any situation the IDF has assisted with before, a member of the search-and-rescue team told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Maj. Tamir Hazan – an officer in the Ram Battalion of the IDF’s Search and Rescue Brigade, who is currently in Brazil – said IDF forces are working in conjunction with local teams to locate bodies buried under the mud.
“It’s not a classic search and rescue operation. It’s not something we’ve trained for,” Hazan told the Post from Brazil. “We train for building collapses, and other things, but this kind of work – extracting people from underneath mud – we have yet to encounter.”
The IDF confirmed late on Thursday night that its search and rescue mission in Brazil was completed, tweeting: “Our aid mission to Brazil has come to an end, and our soldiers will soon be heading home to Israel. Brazil, we are proud to have been by your side.”
On Sunday, a delegation from the IDF Home Front Command set out for Brazil, headed by Col. (res.) Golan Vach, and made up of about 130 soldiers and officers, including engineering experts, doctors, search and rescue personnel, firefighters and troops from the Navy’s underwater missions unit.
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 such Mexico, Haiti, the Philippines, Japan, Turkey, and Nepal.
At least 99 people have been confirmed dead since the rupture of a dam on Friday, and more than 250 are considered missing. Most of the missing are expected to have been buried under a river of slurry – the muddy byproduct of iron ore processing at the nearby Vale mine. The IDF delegation has helped to recover 35 bodies since it arrived at the site on Monday morning, Hazan said. They did not locate any survivors, but they did manage to track down a group of 15 people that were believed to have been swallowed up by the mud, but were alive and well at another location.
Hazan said when the group arrived at the site on Monday – via Brazilian Air Force helicopters – they began to understand “the breadth of the tragedy, and what was expected of us.”
“We had to figure out, how does the mud behave? Could people have been dragged by it to different places, or were they immediately buried?” he said. “We located bodies that were still holding their phones up to their ears, which showed us how quickly it happened, how nobody had time to prepare.”
Hazan said the team has faced significant challenges and limitations.
“The work itself is hard – there are no tools that can tell you a body is there – in open space we can locate someone who’s breathing, or moving, or via body temperature,” he said. “But under the mud, there’s nothing we can do – there are bodies buried one, two or three meters under the mud.”
But Hazan pushed back against reports that the IDF had brought inappropriate equipment for the task.
“There’s no equipment in the world that exists that we could have brought to work in his situation,” he said. “There is no way to locate a body under meters of mud.”
Instead, he said, they have used two main techniques: recreating an aerial picture of the disaster zone, and utilizing the three Oketz search-and-rescue dogs that joined the delegation.
“With your eyes, you can’t see anything, so we have to recreate where the restaurant was – so we open Google Maps, and we say OK it was here, we should dig here,” he said.
The IDF team brought advanced equipment that can locate cellular signals, including sonar and drones which can formulate an aerial picture. And Hazan said that the IDF’s engineering and digging equipment can “do in a minute what a team of 10 people can do in an hour.”
Israel is the only foreign country to send an aid delegation to the disaster site, and Hazan said they were welcomed with open arms.
“They’re very happy we came, that a small country like Israel is the only [foreign country] here now,” he said. “They appreciate it a lot. People on the street are very happy and welcoming – we have gotten a lot of love and appreciation from the locals.”
Anna Ahronheim and Reuters contributed to this report.