BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — A towering slab of rock broke from a cliff and toppled onto pleasure boaters drifting near a waterfall on a lake and officials said six people died.
Edgard Estevo, commander of the Minas Gerais State Fire Department, said at a news conference that in addition to the dead as many as 20 people might be missing and officials were seeking to identify them.
Officials said at least 32 people were injured, though most had been released from hospitals by evening.
Video images showed a gathering of small boats moving slowly near the sheer rock cliff on Furnas Lake when a fissure appeared in the rock and a huge piece toppled onto at least two of the vessels.
Estevo said the accident occurred between the towns of Sao Jose da Barra and Capitolio, from which the boats had left.
The press office of Minas Gerais state told The Associated Press that the fire department had deployed divers and helicopters to help. Minas Gerais Gov. Romeu Zema sent messages of solidarity with the victims via social media.
Furnas Lake, which was created in 1958 for the installation of a hydroelectric plant, is a popular tourist draw in the area roughly 420 kilometers (260 miles) north of Sao Paulo. Officials in Capitolio, which has about 8,400 residents, say the town can see around 5,000 visitors on a weekend, and up to 30,000 on holidays.
Officials suggested the wall coming loose could have been related to heavy rains recently that caused flooding in the state ad forced almost 17,000 people out of their homes.
Earlier last year, the concern was a lack of rain as Brazil experienced the worst drought in 91 years, which forced officials to alert the water flow from the Furnas Lake dam.
The Brazilian navy, which also helped in the rescue, said it would investigate the causes of the accident.
Even in the dry season, in some parts of the lake the movement is so intense that the boats have to take turns to navigate on the lake, said the City Hall press office.
A giant rock dislodged from a scenic canyon in southern Brazil, smashing into three boats, killing at least six people and leaving nine injured.
In the horrific scene, captured on video, boaters scream as they watched a large slab of rock fall from a canyon onto boats cruising the lake near Capitolio, a city in Minas Gerais state.
Two of the boats were directly hit by the falling stone, but authorities were able to rescue 24 people from those vessels, according to Reuters. Another 20 people are believed to be missing.
At least one person was in serious condition with head and facial injuries, while others had broken bones, according to the report.
Rovilson Teixeira, who has worked as a guide in the tourist area for the last six years, said he was stunned by the sight of the falling rocks. “We are completely shocked, and nobody really knows how many victims are involved,” he told Brazilian reporters. “There is not just one, not just two but probably many deaths. There are a lot of people with injuries. The region is full of ambulances that have come from other parts of the state to help the victims. No one is sure about the size of this tragedy.”
A spokesman for the Brazilian Navy said they are opening an investigation into the accident.
The governor of Minas Gerais state said in a statement that the accident was likely caused by heavy rains in the area that dislodged the rocks. Authorities issued warnings for tourists to stay away from waterfalls in the area just hours before the accident.
“We are suffering the pain of a tragedy in our state due to heavy rains that provoked the accident in the Furnas lake. Rescue workers are still on the scene, ” said Minas Gerais governor Romeu Zema. “We are in solidarity with the families at this difficult moment.”
“We have to comfort the families who are waiting for bodies to show up,” said Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. “This is something we can do with the Navy and the Fire Department in Minas Gerais.”