Image: Hillside
Felipe Dana  /  AP
A helicopter crew looks for survivors and victims on Tuesday in the area around Teresopolis, Brazil.
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updated 1/18/2011 3:41:55 PM ET 2011-01-18T20:41:55

The call for help was clearly visible from the helicopter: SOS, carved into the immaculate lawn of an upscale home.

Next to it, people waved and jumped, desperate for help after being stranded for six days by mudslides that obliterated entire communities in the jagged mountains outside Rio de Janeiro, killing at least 700 people as of Tuesday and leaving nearly 14,000 homeless.

"Do we have enough space to land?" the pilot, Col. Orlando Artur da Costa, head of the air rescue sent by Parana state police, asked his crew mates.

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Minutes earlier, an attempt to touch down in another isolated area with nearly 330 pounds of food, water and medical supplies had been aborted after what at first seemed to be flat dirt turned out to be nearly liquid mud that could have swamped the six-person helicopter.

Three men digging at the edge of the mud flat, their legs protected by trash bags tied around their thighs, were left behind for another mission.

This time Costa got the go-ahead: The space was tight, with sheer drops on three sides, but it was enough. He touched down on the grass and more a dozen women and children crowded around, barely waiting for the rotors to stop.

"We have almost no water left to drink, almost no food," said Adriana Claudia de Melo, 31, gathering up the packages of rice, spaghetti, tomato sauce and bottled water. "We were starting to panic."

Monday's delivery was the first time Melo and nearly 30 other survivors stranded on a hilltop received aid from the government nearly a week after torrential rains unleashed avalanches of rocks and mud in these mountains. Many more families remained isolated by washed-out roads and bridges.

For days after the slides, residents in the most inaccessible areas were forced to fend for themselves, searching for the missing and the dead in the mud and constant rain, and then hiking provisions for hours up and down mountainsides.

Bad weather meant aircraft could not reach more than 20 neighborhoods and villages for days. A break in the rain and improved visibility on Sunday finally allowed 12 helicopters to begin taking supplies and rescue personnel in, and shuttling injured residents out.

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Costa's crew started flying Monday. Seen from the air, the scale of the destruction was even more striking: Dozens of crumbled cliffs stood out against the lush green; valleys had turned into muddy rivers; and rivers into silted mud flats, obliterating the communities along their banks.

The city's wealthy often escape Rio's heat to estates nestled in these forested peaks, which are also home to a national park. It was in their employer's stately country house that Melo and the other residents of the cluster of homes called Mariana — caretakers, maids, ranch hands and others — took shelter after their homes were buried or heavily damaged by the slides.

For the five families huddled in the ranch house, the helicopter's arrival staved off desperation.

Diesel fuel for the home's generator was nearing its end, water in the cistern was low and food was being rationed — there were 30 people to feed. There was no phone line to call for help, or to get news of other family members.

Normally, Mariana is a 40-minute drive from Teresopolis, the nearest city. With the five bridges along the route wrecked and the access road washed away, the only way to get to town was a five-hour slog on foot, including several dangerous river crossings.

Larissa Francisco Carvalho, 14, showed off the bruises and cuts on her legs suffered during a trip to town for supplies.

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"It's too difficult with the water rushing by, carrying the bags of food," she said. "We needed help."

Maj. Roberto do Canto Wilkoszynski of the Brazilian National Security Force, who is in charge of coordinating the air rescue, said the helicopters started flying as soon as it was safe to do so.

"We can't put the crews in danger," he said. "But we are doing what we can, as fast as we can, and we intend to stay here as long as we need to complete this mission."

And while neighbors helping each other was a valuable lifeline during the first days after the disaster, Do Canto Wilkoszynski said people now need to be careful due to the risk of further landslides, collapsing debris from destroyed homes and contamination from bodies decomposing in the humid heat.

"The ideal is to contact professionals and let them know what's needed," he said.

Back at a helicopter refueling stop in Teresopolis, slide survivor Rejane Melo, 34, sat among packs of bottled water after being airlifted from the remote neighborhood of Santa Rita, where 10 have been found dead.

"You see the state we are in here," she said, motioning to her 6-year-old daughter, Ellen, and her 16-year-old son, Reginaldo, whose leg was amputated below the knee just days before the storms because of cancer. "We couldn't walk out. We were left to God's mercy."

Story: Brazilian saved after 16 hours buried in mud

The family were not injured and their home was still standing. But it was left damaged and leaky, and Melo worried it could collapse at any moment in the ongoing rain. There was no water or electricity.

Staying became more unbearable each day, Melo said, as bodies began decaying under the debris, causing an overwhelming stench and raising fears of disease.

Then the helicopter showed up.

"We have to thank God in these moments," Melo said.

After caring for the living, rescuers have to think of the dead. A still unknown number of victims lie under tons of red mud and rock in various valleys.

The first search teams with sniffer dogs arrived Sunday, sent by the National Security Force, which is made up of military troops from various states.

Many gained experience in this kind of work from massive landslides in 2008, but the rough terrain could pose new challenges, team leader Lt. Niccolo Inacio Alves de Sousa said.

How far the bodies were scattered by the rushing floodwaters, and how deep they are buried will determine how many will be found, he said. The search also will be hampered by the lack of heavy equipment, which can't reach many slide sites due to collapsed infrastructure.

How long the house in Mariana will be cut off from town is unclear — rebuilding these rural bridges and roads is not an immediate priority. The five families stranded there fear that once the immediate rescue effort ends, they'll be on their own to face a long recovery.

"We lost our bearings with this," said Carvalho, the teenage girl with the bruised legs. "Now we'll look to each other, and to God, for help."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mudslides in Brazil kill hundreds

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  1. A car, dragged inside a church by a mudslide, is seen in Nova Friburgo, Brazil on Friday, Jan. 21. Brazil will create a nationwide disaster-prevention and early-warning system following recent floods and landslides that killed more than 750 people in mountain towns north of Rio de Janeiro, government officials said Thursday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A resident comes down a house destroyed by a landslides, in Nova Friburgo on Thursday, Jan. 20. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A dog from K9 de Creixell, a Spanish organization, searches for landslide victims in a damaged home in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, Thursday, Jan. 20. Deaths from last week's mudslides rose to at least 727 and have left thousands homeless. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A girl receives a container of potable water from a soldier in the landslide-affected Alto Floresta neighborhood in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, on Wednesday, Jan. 19. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Residents salvage items from their homes after a landslide in the Alto Floresta neighborhood of Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 19. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Red Cross volunteers stack donated clothes at a relief center in Teresopolis, state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday, Jan 19. Brazilian officials began moving thousands of people out of at-risk areas near Rio in a flooding disaster that has already left at least 727 people dead. Ten teams of civil defense and environment officials were evacuating residents in outlying areas of Nova Friburgo, the hardest-hit town, said their commander, Colonel Roberto Robadey. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Brazilian National Force rescue workers carry the body of a boy on the scene of a recent landslide, where seven people were found buried among debris in the neighbourhood of Jardilandia, in Nova Friburgo, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, on Jan. 19. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Residents of Sumidouro, one of the mudslide-hit towns north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, unload supplies from a navy helicopter on Tuesday, Jan. 18. Brazil has sent around 700 troops to help areas desperate for aid. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A man cleans up at a fabric store in Nova Friburgo on Monday. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Severely eroded portions of mountains are seen Monday near Nova Friburgo, where dozens died. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A woman cries while holding her newborn baby after being rescued by helicopter from an isolated area near Petropolis on Monday. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A house remains standing on Monday even though the rest of the hillside in a rural area north of Rio de Janeiro collapsed. (Bruno Domingos / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A few of the thousands of landslide victims rest at a shelter on Monday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Damage to a road near the town of Nova Friburgo is seen Monday. Dozens of people died in the town. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Rescue workers and residents of Nova Friburgo recover the body of a young landslide victim on Monday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Gravediggers carry the coffin of a victim at a cemetery in Nova Friburgo on Monday. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Isaura Martin dos Santos waits for medical attention at a hospital in Nova Friburgo on Monday. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rescue workers search for victims after a landslide in Nova Friburgo on Sunday. (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Paulo Rodrigues da Silva, left, reacts as he embraces a relative he found at a shelter for people displaced by landslides in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Jan. 16. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rescue workers climb on a helicopter after searching for survivors and victims in an area affected by a landslide near Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Jan. 16. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People affected by recent landslides of mud and rock in Teresopolis, Brazil, receive drinking water on Jan. 16. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Ludmila Moura, 5, sits on a mattress at a shelter for people displaced by landslides in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Jan. 16. Ludmila was pulled out of her destroyed house by her father, Marcelo Moura, on the first night of heavy rains last Thursday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Residents flee the Campo Grande neighborhood after the area was devastated by recent landslides of mud and rock, in Teresopolis, Brazil, Jan. 16. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A dog, "Leao", sits for a second consecutive day, next to the grave of her owner, Cristina Maria Cesario Santana, who died in the week's catastrophic landslides in Brazil, at the cemetery in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janiero, on Jan. 15. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Local residents look at partially buried vehicles in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 15, after heavy rains hit Rio de Janeiro for several days. More than 500 people have died due to floods. (Antonio Lecedra / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A resident is reflected in a mirror at a destroyed house in Teresopolis, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 15. (Bruno Domingos / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A house is buried in an area affected by mudslides in Floresta in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Friday, Jan. 14. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A woman is helped by residents after being rescued from a landslide in Teresopolis, Brazil, Friday, Jan. 14. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Residents stand on safe ground after a landslide in Teresopolis, Friday, Jan. 14. (Bruno Domingos / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. People mourn during the burial of a landslide victim in Teresopolis, Friday, Jan. 14. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. An aerial view of a neighborhood partially destroyed by a landslide caused by heavy rains in Nova Friburgo, Jan. 13. Rescue workers dug desperately for survivors on Thursday and struggled to reach areas cut off by raging floods and landslides that have killed hundreds of people in one of Brazil's worst natural disasters in decades. (Shana Reis  / Government of Rio via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A nurse receives medical attention after fainting in front of the police station in which several bodies are being counted after the heavy rains in Teresópolis, Jan. 13. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. People bury victims of a landslide in Teresopolis, Jan. 13. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 6-month old baby Nicolas Guimaraes s rescued from the wreckage caused by a mudslide in Nova Friburgo, January 12. (Marcus Vini / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rescue team works in the zone affected by a landslide after heavy rains in the city of Nueva Friburgo, Jan. 13. (Jadson Marques / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Roberta Machado Correia, who survived a landslide, attends the burial of a friend in Teresopolis, Jan. 13. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Rescue workers remove a live rabbit as they search for survivors inside a home destroyed by a landslide in Teresopolis, Jan. 13. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A church sits surrounded by debris Wednesday, Jan. 12, after a mudslide hit this area of Teresopolis, Brazil. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Flooded areas Wednesday included this street in Franco da Rocha. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Areas ripped away by slides are seen Wednesday in Teresopolis. (Fabio Motta / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Rescue workers search for victims Wednesday in a low-income neighborhood of Teresopolis. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Damage in Teresopolis is seen on Wednesday. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Debris lines this street Thursday in the Caleme neighborhood of Teresopolis. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. People stand on the porch of their home in the Caleme neighborhood of Teresopolis on Thursday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Cars like this one in the Caleme neighborhood of Teresopolis littered the mudslide areas on Thursday. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Rescue workers remove debris in their search for victims in Teresopolis on Wednesday. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Rain continued Thursday as destruction lined the roads of towns like Teresopolis. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Debris is seen Wednesday in the city of Nova Frigurgo, one of the hardest hit areas. (Bruno Domingos / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Editor's note:
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    A man reacts as he walks close to bodies among the debris in Teresopolis on Wednesday. (Roberto Ferreira / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. A victim is rescued Wednesday in Teresopolis. (Marino Azevedo / Handout via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Survivors take refuge in a gymnasium in Teresopolis on Thursday. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Man, buried alive, hoisted from landslide mud

  1. Closed captioning of: Man, buried alive, hoisted from landslide mud

    >>> in brazil where floods and mud slides killed more than 665 people, something of a miracle. a man was pulled out from under 13 feet of mud after being buried alive for 16 hours. doctors are saying he's recovering well at a nearby hospital. it is now 7:07. back to matt, meredith and al. that's a nice story.

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