Hopes for finding a priest who disappeared after soaring into the air with hundreds of colorful balloons are growing slimmer, rescue officials said Wednesday.
Roman Catholic Rev. Adelir Antonio de Carli has been missing since Sunday, when he lifted off from the port city of Paranagua wearing a helmet, an aluminum thermal flight suit, waterproof coveralls and a parachute. He was seeking to break a record for the longest time in-flight with helium-filled party balloons.
Rescuers in boats, planes and helicopters continued to search off Brazil's southern coast, near where a cluster of yellow, orange, pink and white balloons was found floating in the Atlantic close to where de Carli's was when he last made contact.
"It is getting harder to hold on to our optimism," said Johnny Coelho, commander of the Penha Fire Department, which is searching for the priest. "The possibilities of finding him alive are beginning to get smaller and smaller as each day passes."
Coelho said some 30 fire department rescue workers were also scouring the "thick, almost impenetrable forests" covering several 1,300-foot mountains along the coast.
Still hope among parishioners
But de Carli's parishioners remained optimistic.
"We are more confident than ever they will find him alive," Sao Cristovao parish treasurer Denise Gallas said. "Hope is always the last thing to die."
A paragliding instructor who taught de Carli three years ago called the priest's disappearance a "tragedy foretold."
Marcio Andre Lichtnow described the 41-year-old priest as a "headstrong, anxious individual who was always in a rush to get things done."
"After two or three months, I asked him to abandon the course because of these personality traits, which are not the ideal profile for a paraglider," Lichtnow said by telephone. "So what happened comes as no big surprise."
'I thought he was joking'
Lichtnow also said de Carli phoned him days before liftoff.
"I told him that the winds would carry him all the way to South Africa," Lichtnow said. "He said he had studied everything very carefully and that he would go ahead. I honestly thought he was joking."
De Carli hoped to break a 19-hour flight record and raise money for a "spiritual" rest-stop for truckers in Paranagua.
Searchers reached the floating balloons late Tuesday but there was no sign of the priest, the Air Force said on its Web site.
De Carli, who has taken jungle survival and mountain climbing courses, was carrying enough drinking water and cereal bars to stay alive for at least five days, according to Coelho. An experienced skydiver, he also had a GPS device, a satellite phone and a buoyant chair with him.
The priest embarked on a similar adventure on Jan. 13, when he used 600 balloons to carry him on a four-hour, 17,390-foot-high voyage from the town of Ampere to neighboring Argentina, where he landed safely.