Manuel Antonio de Oliveira is a man with a leathery face, calloused hands and sunken eyes. He is a proud man of the working-class.
He is not rich by any means maybe lower middle class, by Brazilian standards. He couldn’t afford to pay for private university education for his kids. But it doesn't take a lot of money to raise kids right and instill good values, which he tried to do. And Manuel knows a thing or two about building stuff.
So Manuel worked double shifts and saved up money for years to be able to buy building supplies. And once he had the cash, he then, little by little, built a home for his family. It was located in the remote mountains outside the weekend vacation town of Teresopolis in Rio de Janeiro state. Manuel could not afford to build in town land was too expensive, the best spots bought by wealthy people from Rio.
So he built it high up in the mountains, in a secluded little area by the small creek where the other humble people would claim land and build. They were cooks and room cleaners in fancy mountain lodges.
The home wasn’t anything fancy. Brick walls, with cement tile roofing. It had a couple of rooms, a place to do laundry and a tiny kitchen. But it was a home, their home, and the air was mountain crisp. It was a far cry from the urban slums and pollution of Rio de Janeiro. Manuel built this place with his own hands, he knew where every nail was pounded, and once his kids turned into adults he handed the place over to them to live in. He moved out to live down in the city, closer to work.
His kids, now adults, were a tight knit group. There was Alessandro, 25 Rudy, 28 Paola, 23 and her son (and Manuel's grandson), Pedro Lucas, who was two years old. All living together, to save money, in the house built by Dad.
In the early morning hours of January 12, as they all slept, a massive downpour hit the Serrana region of Rio state and caused massive mudslides and flash floods. The cascade of mud came sliding down the mountain, literally crushing everything in its path. Bridges, shacks, posh bed-and-breakfast hotels were all victims. Nothing was spared, including Manuel’s home with his three kids and grandchild inside.
Manuel wasn’t home at the time, but when he could not reach anyone by cell phone, he immediately headed there. With roads cut-off from mud and debris, he hiked up the mountain. He knew it was going to be bad based on the word-of-mouth stories he was hearing from those who fled. When Manuel reached the house, the entire community was almost totally gone, his house crushed like cardboard.
Where his house once stood was now a jumbled mess of thick mud mixed with bricks, tree trunks and broken furniture.
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Manuel knew immediately that everyone was dead. But he didn’t cry. He couldn't.
With no time to think about it, his hardened, fatherly instincts took over. He went into 'work mode'. He started trying to pry away the thick metal and debris from under the mud.
“I built this house, I know everything about this house,” Manuel told Al Jazeera video-journalist, Maria Elena Romero. “I know they were all sleeping together in this room, so I can find them.”
It was pouring rain.
No firefighters were anywhere in sight. This was an isolated mountain area, and no rescue personnel had arrived. A helicopter passed overhead, but they were too overwhelmed with the scale of the destruction at that point to help and, anyway, it was unclear if it was safe to land in such a disaster zone.
Since Manuel was alone, a few neighbours – maybe five people - who fled and were coming back to see what was left of their homes, started to help Manuel dig.
They didn’t ask if they could help. They just started in. Few words were spoken.
“As amazing as it sounds, I just met these people today – I thank God they are here to help,” Manuel said as he took a brief break from the digging.
There were no signs of his kids. But as they dug, they did find some of Paola’s jewelry, now covered in mud. Instinctively, Manuel set it aside on a rock.
Photo: Jewelry found in the mud belonging to Manuel's daughter, Paola [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
The rain kept falling. Manuel and his few helpers were straining to dig out the thick mud. It felt like wet cement. This was a job for a John Deere not a half dozen, wet and tired men with no tools.
Desperate, Manuel found a large crow bar to try to pry away metal.
He never gave up.
“The reason I want to find the bodies of my children is because I want to give them a decent burial, to put them in a place they deserve,” Manuel said. “How can I leave my kids buried under this wreck?”
Minutes turned to hours.
Late in the afternoon, and help finally arrives. About 10 firefighters are dropped off from helicopters. All the roads to the area are cut off, so this is the only way they can get there.
The firemen start to dig, but it’s an impossible task. So more helicopters arrive to drop of wire cutters and even a saw to cut through metal.
With help finally here, an exhausted Manuel stops digging and just watches over the scene. He paces back-and-forth in the mud, and drinks a little water given to him. He is still soaking wet, covered in mud. He cuts a hole in a black trash bag and sticks his head through to keep warm and try to stay as dry as possible.
The strangers who were helping him all day, also soaking wet and muddy, give Manuel a hug, wish him the best, and then start walking down the mountain - leaving the job to the firefighters.
“When they pull the bodies out, don’t go look at it,” one volunteer tells Manuel, before leaving. “Just let them do their job and go see the bodies at the morgue, but not here.”
Manuel doesn’t respond, but thanks them for their help. “You are like cousins to me now, you all are warriors,” he tells them. “Thank you.”
It’s now the first time all day he has had a chance to reflect on the fact his grandson is crushed under the mud. He thinks back to better times.
“My little grandson would tell me, ‘Papa bend down, bend down,’ and he would hug me,” Manuel told me, before crying.
Photo: Manuel in foreground, crying as he thinks about his grandson as firefighters continue to dig. [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
Nightfall is less than an hour away, and the weather conditions are taking a turn for the worst. A helicopter lands in the washed out creek bed. A fire captain jumps out and runs to the scene. He informs the other firefighters they need to leave very soon, or else risk getting trapped on the mountain.
But the bottom half of a body is sticking out of the mud.
As a few men start to pack up their shovels, Manuel starts to understand what is going to happen: the firefighters might leave without getting the bodies.
He enters into shock at the very thought of the men leaving at this critical time and he gets back in his fatherly mode. “No, they aren’t going to leave with my daughter buried there,” he says out loud to nobody in particular. He then quickly walks up to where the firemen are huddled.
The firefighters continue working a few more minutes, urgently trying to free the body. This goes on about another 30, tense, minutes.
It’s now about 7 pm. The chief firefighter is getting radio calls back from base. Presumably supervisors are urging him to get his men off the mountain as soon as possible.
The firefighter captain, sensing the urgency, starts to help out with the digging.
Finally, one body is pulled from the debris and a black tarp is quickly placed on top.
Manuel does not run up to it.
Instead he collapses on a rock breaking into uncontrollable crying. The steady rainfall continues. It’s getting cold.
Manuel is alone.
Photo: Manuel, alone, crying at the very moment a body of one of his kids is pulled from the mud. [Alan Roberto Lima/Al Jazeera]
The firefighters cover the bloated body so quickly it’s unidentifiable, but it's obviously one of Manuel’s adult children.
Is it Alessandro? Rudy? Paola?
The firefighters don’t have a stretcher, so they carry the body on an old broken down door they found resting in the mud.
They carry the body to the waiting helicopter – with the chopper engines still running.
Manuel tries to run up to the helicopter to catch a ride back to the town with the body, but firefighters say that's not a good idea. Plus, it’s a small helicopter and there is no more room anyway.
One of the firefighters tells Manuel where they are taking the body to a football field down in Teresopolis where all other bodies are going, he is told over the furious rotor blade chop.
Photo: Firefighters carrying the body of Manuel's child to the waiting helicopter. [Maria Elena Romero/Al Jazeera]
The helicopter carrying the corpse of one of Manuel’s kids takes off.
Manuel starts to run down the mountain, but its slow trudging through the thick mud. The football field is a long way away, so it’s likely at least an hour – maybe two - until he can make it by foot back to an area where he can catch a ride out of the disaster zone and back to Teresopolis. But he is off, disappearing quickly over the horizon of the mud and boulders.
Limbs from other bodies, two other of Manuel’s kids, as well as his grandchild, Pedro Lucas, are sticking from the mud.
But it’s too late to retrieve them.
It’s less than half an hour until complete darkness. The firefighters can stay no longer they have already stayed more than expected to get one body out.
In the near distance, two other helicopters hover on approach, landing one by one in rapid succession. It's a race against the clock to pick up the remaining firefighters and shuttle them off the mountain.
But before they leave, they place a white tarp over the remaining bodies, which are half sticking from the mud. They place a tree stump on top of the tarp, so it won’t blow away.
As the choppers land, the pilots wave the waiting firefighters to board. The men hurry towards it, hunched over as they enter under the rotor wash.
The firefighters say they will try to return tomorrow.
And then the last helicopters with the remaining firefighters lifts off. It takes a sharp turn to head back down the mountain.
It’s almost totally dark now.
Not a soul is left.
And it's silent.
-WITH REPORTING AND VIDEO FROM MARIA ELENA ROMERO AND DOUGLAS ENGLE