There were no warning sirens. It was 4:20 pm when Samarco's tailings dams collapsed and it was up to the terrified residents of the Bento Rodrigues district of Mariana to warn each other about the approaching mud avalanche.

Repeatedly assured by the company that its Fundão and Santarém dams would never fail, the residents had only a few minutes to seek protection from the nearly 2.5m wave that killed 17 people and injured another 16. About 600 people were left homeless and two were never found. Their lives were apparently not worth the price of a simple siren.

Tailings from iron-ore extraction began by covering Bento Rodrigues on that November 5 in 2015, creating a landscape of ruins tainted red and brown. After travelling 2.5km from the dams to Bento Rodrigues, the mud contaminated the Doce River, burying springs and sterilizing the water.

The dried mud, poor in organic materials, blocks the growth of any plant and has ruined fertile land. Experts say it could take decades for nature to recover if the mud is left untouched. Environmental officials say that 11 species of fish native to the river may have gone extinct.

Calculations put the volume of mud travelling 700km of the Doce River from Marina to the sea at 62 billion liters, enough to fill 24,800 Olympic-size pools. It was later revealed that the engineer hired to build the dams had warned of cracks a year before. He asked the company to fortify the structures in order to avoid liquefaction, which results from water saturation. The company says it followed the recommendations. The engineer says he never received an answer when he asked about them. The investigation was ongoing on February 11, 2016, although officials and Samarco's controlling shareholders Vale and BHP Billiton had already agreed on an R$20 billion ($5 billion) fund to remediate the consequences.

Brazilians have experienced other environmental disasters. It is easy to remember the Cesium-137 contamination in Goiás, and the asphyxiating pollution in the Cubatão industrial hub of São Paulo. But for a country already shocked by the biggest corruption scandal in its history, as well as an economic crisis linked to the end of a market cycle that had inflated the prices of Brazil's main exports, the Mariana tragedy seems to have awakened its citizens to the consequences of no planning, monitoring or enforcement.

The positive trade balances of before turned into palpable human suffering and natural destruction. Falsely hidden in the small leaks and ravages caused by mining all over the country, the true tragedy became terribly visible.

Mariana is the disaster's epicenter, giving the act of recording its ruins an important role in not only documenting the horror but making it less impersonal. While who's to blame is discussed, the only certainty is the absence of those who died and the ruin of their lives. Documenting their smudged portraits, tainted personal belongings and destroyed homes is remembering the victims in the retina of those who see their fragments. It's an act that tells the victims who lost loved ones or their homes that their lives are worth something, much more than a siren or billions of dollars. They are worth an entire nation's effort of remembrance and grief.

*Patrick Brock is a New York-based journalist

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