Scenes of horror unfolded near Rio, after torrents of mud and water swept down crowded hillsides killing more than 430 people in Brazil''s worst natural disaster in decades. At least 432 people have died, according to local officials and media in the worst affected towns of Novo Friburgo, Teresopolis and Petropolis.
Walls of thick, muddy gunge cascaded past apartment blocks in several towns, flowing into single-story homes and overturning cars as they surged down the hills sweeping along everything in their path.
"I thought I was going to die," said Ilair Pereira de Souza, a 53-year-old woman who had a miraculous escape when neighbours on a nearby balcony threw her a rope. "Help me, help me," she pleaded, in scenes replayed throughout the day on Brazilian television.
She grabbed for the rope, and disappeared underneath the muddy waters, before reappearing, clinging to the slim lifeline, but without her dog Beethoven, which she had been clutching in her arms. "If I had tried to save him, I would have died. The poor thing. He stayed for a moment looking me in the eyes, and then he was swept away."
Freakish storms early Wednesday in the mountainous area just north of Rio de Janeiro dumped the equivalent of a month''s rain in just a few hours, sending mudslides slicing through towns and hamlets, destroying homes, roads and bridges and knocking out telephone and power lines.
President Dilma Rousseff, clad in black rubber boots, walked the mud-covered cobblestone streets of Novo Friburgo, where 201 deaths were recorded, took a helicopter tour of the disaster zone and pledged "strong action" by the government.
The death toll was expected to rise further as rescuers arrived in remote hamlets, many cut off to all but helicopter access.
"One woman tried to save her children, but her two-month-old baby was carried away by a torrent like a doll," sobbed Angela, a 55-year-old resident of Teresopolis.
Tropical rains, common at this time of year, intensified as a cold front moved in, unleashing the tragedy before dawn, while families slept. "In eight hours... it rained as much as for the entire month," said Paulo Canedo, a hydrologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
The deluge "caused avalanches of rocks and soil that carried everything down with them, picking up houses," he said. As weather forecasters warned of more rain in the hours and days ahead, rescuers aided by desperate residents clawed through rubble and mud looking for survivors or bodies.