Rio landslide kills 63

January 3, 2010 12:00 am

, ANGRA DOS REIS, Jan 3 – Rescuers pulled more bodies from an avalanche of thick mud and rock that buried a luxury Brazilian hotel filled with New Year\’s revelers, as the death toll from heavy rains in the south of the country rose to 63.

Twenty-eight people were killed in the tragedy at the hotel on Ilha Grande — a resort island southwest of Rio — and another six people injured.

State officials said another landslide in the nearby city of Angra dos Reis, south of Rio, left at least 13 people dead, part of a series of mudslides brought on by incessant rains that have killed at least 63 people across the state of Rio de Janeiro since Wednesday and left dozens missing.

Authorities said the Hotel Sankay was full to capacity with about 40 guests, including children, ringing in the New Year at the idyllic seaside getaway on Bananal beach.

The complex is nestled at the bottom of a jungle-covered hillside which gave way before dawn Friday on New Year\’s Day, transforming the tourist paradise into a hell.

"It was a deafening noise, I\’ve never heard anything like it — a loud thunder that wouldn\’t stop," Felipe Gomes Martins, a hotel neighbor, told Brazil news website G1.

"There was a lot of earth, mud, trees — trees falling and taking away everything," said Martins, 32, who described how he and his father helped rescue some 60 people as the landslide swamped the area.

Rio\’s deputy governor Luiz Fernando Pezao said it was "a vision of horror," describing it to CBN radio as "a mountain of rocks and trees covering various homes."

Nearby houses had been rented out to vacationers for the holiday period.

A fire chief said the death toll at the hotel site could rise to 40, and rescue teams were speeding their search Saturday amid warnings of the possibility of new landslides.

"The whole area is in severe danger (of new landslides) due to the vegetation," Fire Department commander Pedro Machado told Globo News.

About 100 rescue workers and firefighters, aided by rescue dogs, wrestled to remove tons of mud, rocks and thick tree trunks in the hope of finding victims alive on Ilha Grande, but "the chances of finding survivors are very slender," Machado said.

"We cannot use heavy equipment because of the risk of setting off new landslides," he said.

Authorities said rescue operations would likely continue another 48 hours, adding that most of the bodies recovered earlier were found on land. At least three more had been pulled from the sea.

It is still not known if there were foreigners among the dead.

The Hotel Sankay, which opened in 1994, catered to Brazilian and foreign tourists looking for a remote beachside hideaway.

The island, whose Bananal beach can only be reached by water, is the largest in a translucent bay studded with pristine tropical islands.

In the center of the city of Angra dos Reis, a seaside town on the mainland overlooking Ilha Grande Bay about 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Rio, another landslide buried several houses, killing at least 13, according to a government statement.

A top Brazilian geologist said "the natural risk is very severe" in locations like Bananal beach, where thick vegetation grows in unstable ground on steep, rocky terrain.

"The occupation of unstable areas is greatly increasing the risk of accidents," Alvaro dos Santos, former director of the Technology Research Institute, told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

Although the rains stopped on Friday, authorities put Rio on alert because of fears of potentially devastating mudslides in its densely populated hillside favelas, or shanty towns.

About 20 people were reported killed Thursday because of subsidence and house collapses, mainly in and around the city.

The mudslides have forced 4,000 people to leave their homes across the state — about the same number affected by similar mudslides which hit the state one year ago.


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