Workers race to unearth victims of Brazil mudslide

April 9, 2010 12:00 am

, NITEROI, Brazil, Apr 9 – Rescue workers raced against the clock Friday to unearth as many as 200 people feared buried in a mudslide near Rio de Janeiro, as the death toll from massive floods in the region rose to 182.

More than 24 hours after a hillside suddenly collapsed, 16 bodies had been recovered from tonnes of earth that swept away dozens of homes in a slum called Morro do Bumba in this city across the bay from Rio.

Firefighters said there was virtually no chance of finding survivors under so much mud.

Officials said at least 182 people have been killed in the state of Rio de Janeiro since Monday when the heaviest rains in half a century unleashed floods and mudslides that tore through the metropolitan area\’s precarious hillside slums, or favelas.

Niteroi has been the hardest hit with at least 107 dead, compared to 55 in Rio, according to the civil defense authorities.

Civil Defense officials said that at least 161 people had also been injured in the weather chaos of the past four days, and the state of Rio reported that 14,000 people have been forced to move due to the heavy rain.

How many people really were swept away in Morro do Bumba is unknown.

Firefighter chief Colonel Pedro Machado told AFP earlier Thursday that "based on the testimony of witnesses, some 200 people were buried under the rubble."

Nevertheless, the commander of the 12th military police battalion in Niteroi, Rui Franca, said, "It is impossible to make a rational estimate of the number of people buried because there is no relief map of the area."

In the night, the rescue teams cleared the mountain of mud under the blaze of half a dozen floodlights amid a heavy rain that made the already perilous work more difficult.

Despite the risk of new mudslides, some 150 people worked through the night, with the help of eight excavators, as a stream of trucks came and went loaded with debris.

Twenty-five people, including eight small children, were pulled out alive on Thursday after spending hours buried under mud and debris, fueling the hopes of anxious relatives desperate to find their loved ones.

But firefighters said there was little chance of finding survivors after part of the hillside fell away and swallowed everything in its path, including 50 houses, a day-care center and a pizzeria.

Rio Governor Sergio Cabral said the situation was an "ecological and human catastrophe," on a visit to the slum.

"It\’s absolutely incredible," Cabral said, estimating that cleaning operations would last two weeks.

An angry mob in the neighborhood near Rio\’s iconic Christ the Redeemer smashed one of the trains that takes tourists up to the gigantic statue, upset over the death of three locals, the Agencia O Dia reported.

The crowd said the company that owns the tourist trains was responsible for diverting a sewage canal towards the shanty town four years ago that channeled much of the flood water over the past days. The company director rejected the charges.

Back in Niteroi, Sabrina Carvalho de Jesus, 26, a hospital worker, escaped with her life when the earth began to move, but her grandfather, mother and six-year-old son were buried.

"Honestly, I don\’t hold out hope any more," she said of her missing loved ones. They were under "an awful lot of earth, and being buried for 12 hours — that\’s a lot of time," she added.

The head of the Niteroi public services, Jose Mocarzel, said the Morro do Bumba shantytown had been built up over the past 25 years on an old landfill site and was particularly at risk.

A strong odor of methane lingered among the trash-strewn streets.

Flooding over the past days has been so intense that authorities urged residents to remain indoors. Rainfall was predicted to continue all week.

Most of the casualties were trapped in landslides in the slums around Rio, a metropolis of some 16 million people that will host the World Cup football tournament in 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics.


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