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19 dead as mudslide hits Rio hotel

by Staff Writers
Rio De Janeiro (AFP) Jan 1, 2010
A mudslide struck a small luxury hotel filled with New Year's revelers on an island southwest of Rio de Janeiro Friday, killing at least 19 people and leaving many others missing amid tons of mud and debris.

Mudslides and flooding unleashed by days of torrential rains have claimed the lives of 52 people since Wednesday across the state of Rio de Janeiro, authorities said.

The heavy rains caused a hillside to give way on Ilha Grande in Rio state, bringing an avalanche of mud, boulders and trees down on part of the Hotel Sankay and three houses on the island.

"It is a vision of horror," Rio's deputy governor Luiz Fernando Pezao told CBN radio, describing "a mountain of rocks and trees covering various homes."

A fire chief said the death toll at the site could rise to 40.

Authorities said the hotel was full to capacity with about 40 guests bringing in the New Year at the idyllic seaside getaway, perched on a jungle-covered hillside overlooking the water.

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

The nationalities of the victims were not immediately known.

Officials said many people were still missing and believed buried by the landslide.

"Based on our conversations with neighbors, the number of victims could reach 40," Colonel Pedro Machado, a fire chief, told CBN.

About 100 rescue workers and firefighters wrestled to remove the mud and vegetation in the slim hope of finding survivors.

Machado earlier said "the chances of finding survivors are very slender.

"Because the houses and the hotel are under tons of mud, the rescue work is more difficult. We cannot use heavy equipment because of the risk of setting off new landslides," he said.

Authorities said most of the bodies recovered earlier were found on land, but at least three had been pulled from the sea.

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

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

At least seven other people were reported killed by a landslide in the center of Angra dos Reis, a seaside town on the mainland overlooking Ilha Grande Bay.

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

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

In Baixada Fuminense, northern Rio, three rivers burst their banks, forcing around 200 people to flee from their homes.

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