RIO DE JANEIRO — Search crews found more bodies on Thursday, raising the death toll from the walls of earth and water that crushed homes in recent days to nearly 500 people, local media reported.
Whole families were wiped out in at least five towns in mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, while survivors were left scrambling Thursday to reach still-trapped neighbors.
UN: Syria government, rebels prep for peace talks
Updated 76 minutes ago 5/21/2013 3:55:19 PM +00:00 Syria's opposition and government are preparing to take part in an internationally-sponsored peace conference, the United Nations-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Tuesday.
- Egypt's 'rebels' gather millions of signatures
- Inquiry: 'No evidence' boy in photo was killed by IDF
- Oscar Pistorius' brother cleared of road crash death
- Israel, Syria clash on Golan Heights cease-fire line
- UN: Syria government, rebels prep for peace talks
Dozens were still missing after the slides hit at about 3 a.m. Wednesday in the picturesque Serrana region after 10 inches of rain — a month's normal rainfall — fell in 24 hours.
More then 13,500 people were made homeless in the region, the Civil Defense agency said.
Most of the deaths were north of Rio, but at least 18 people also died in flooding in Sao Paulo earlier this week.
More rain, possibly heavy at times, is forecast through the weekend.
Some survivors recounted their ordeal while taking shelter Thursday.
"We were like zombies, covered in mud, in the dark, digging and digging" after the slides hit, said Geisa Carvalho, 19, a resident of Teresopolis where dozens died.
A tremendous rumble awoke Carvalho and her mother Vania Ramos as tons of earth slid down a sheer granite rock face onto their neighborhood.
The power was out, but by lightning flashes they could see a torrent of mud and water rushing just a few feet from their home — and the remnants of their neighbors' houses that were swept far down a hill.Video: Woman saved by daring rescue, but dog is lost (on this page)
"I don't even have the words to describe what I've seen," said Ramos during a 5-mile hike to the main part of her town in search of food and water. "A lot of our friends are dead or missing. There are people we may never find."
Carvalho and Ramos said they ran out of their home moments after the mudslide and joined neighbors in digging for survivors with bare hands and sticks.
They quickly located a family of four who had died under the rubble of their home — and said another neighbor's 2-month-old baby was washed away in his crib and has yet to be found.
Television footage showed many houses buried in mud as desperate residents and rescue workers searched for survivors.Video: Mudslides in Brazil leave hundreds dead (on this page)
"There was no way of telling which house would fall. Rich and poor — everything was destroyed," resident Fernanda Carvalho was quoted as saying by the Globo network's website.
Houses turned inside out
Nearly all the homes in their Caleme neighborhood were swept to the bottom of a hill, seemingly turned inside out.
Tangles of plumbing were wrapped in trees, children's' clothing littered the earth, massive trees were tossed about like toothpicks.
A river of water and mud flowed through the streets as a light rain continued to fall Thursday.
Only a few rescuers had managed to hike to Caleme by Thursday and they only had shovels and machetes — not the heavier equipment that may be needed to hunt for survivors.
Residents said they had no food, water or medication, and many made the long walk for help to the center of Teresopolis, about 40 miles north of Rio.Interactive: Mudslides mapped, explained (on this page)
Hundreds of family members crowded at a morgue Wednesday night waiting to identify bodies.
"It's like an earthquake struck some areas," said Teresopolis Mayor Jorge Mario. "There are three or four neighborhoods that were totally destroyed in rural areas. There are hardly any houses standing there and all the roads and bridges are destroyed."
Dozens also died in the towns of Nova Friburgo, Petropolis, Sumidouro and Sao Jose do Vale do Rio Preto.
"The city is finished," Nova Friburgo resident Carlos Damasio was quoted as saying on the online edition of local newspaper O Globo.
Morgues in the towns were full and bodies covered in blankets were laid out in streets.
President Dilma Rousseff flew by helicopter over the region Thursday. The nation's Health Ministry said it was sending 7 tons of medications to the area, enough to treat 45,000 people for a month, it said.
The death toll was expected to rise as firefighters reached remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighborhoods were destroyed, Teresopolis's mayor said. About 1,000 people there were left homeless.
"I saw six bodies on my street," said 53-year-old Antonio Venancio, whose house was inundated with mud but still standing. "We just don't know what to do in the face of something so horrible."
'So many disappeared'
"There are so many disappeared — and so many that will probably never be found," said Angela Marina de Carvalho Silva, a resident of Teresopolis who feared she might have lost 15 relatives, including five nieces and nephews.
"There was nothing we could do. It was hell," she said.
Carvalho Silva took refuge in a neighbor's house on high ground with her husband and daughter, and watched the torrential rain carry away cars, tree branches and animals, and rip apart the homes of friends and family.
"It's over. There's nothing. The water came down and swept everything away," said her husband, Sidney Silva.
Television images showed one woman holding a dog in the ruins of her house as powerful floodwaters tore at the remaining walls.
She grabbed a rope thrown by residents from a nearby rooftop and was eventually pulled to safety, but had to drop the dog into the waters to save herself.
About 800 search-and-rescue workers dug for survivors.
In one town, firefighters rescued a 25-year-old man who held his 6-month-old son for 15 hours until they were both pulled out alive. The man's wife and mother-in-law were feared dead.
"I believe the number of dead is much more than was announced so far," Rio state environment secretary Carlos Minc was quoted as saying by Globo television after he flew over the region. "Many people died while they were sleeping."
Only on NBCNews.com
- From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
- US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
- China: One-child policy is here to stay
- New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
- 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
- China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
- French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali
"Rescue teams are still arriving in the areas that have been worst affected," he said.
Minc described what he saw as a "striking tragedy," Globo reported. "From what I saw here today I can say [it] is the biggest catastrophe in the history of Teresopolis," he continued.
Deadly flooding and slides earlier this month caused havoc in Minas Gerais state north of Rio, where 16 people died and dozens of communities are in a state of emergency.
Heavy rains and mudslides kill hundreds of people across Brazil each year, especially during the South American summer.
The worst hit are the poor, whose rickety homes are often built on steep slopes with weak or no foundations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.