April 25, 2008 / 12:14 AM / 10 years ago

Hopes of finding ballooning Brazilian priest fade

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Rescue workers were losing hope on Thursday of finding a priest who disappeared off the southern coast of Brazil after drifting out to sea four days ago suspended from hundreds of helium-filled party balloons.

<p>Brazilian Roman Catholic priest Antonio de Carli prepares to be launched suspended from hundreds of helium-filled party balloons at the start of his stunt aimed at raising money to build a chapel for truckers in his highway parish, in the Atlantic port city of Paranagua, southern Brazil, on April 19, 2008. REUTERS/Padre Aderli/Handout</p>

Father Adelir Antonio de Carli went missing on Sunday night after he called friends from his mobile phone to say his contraption made of some thousand balloons would soon crash into the Atlantic Ocean.

The chaplain staged the stunt to help raise money for a chapel for truckers in his highway parish.

Brazil’s air force suspended its search for de Carli on Thursday, a spokesman said. The navy continued to patrol waters off the coast of Santa Catarina state but was considering halting operations.

“The chances (of survival) are increasingly slim and we are considering when to end the search effort,” Lieutenant Francisco Jose Cavalcante of the navy’s southern search unit in Rio Grande do Sul state told Reuters.

“It’s difficult to talk about survival. There have been cases of shipwrecked people having lived for four or five days at sea,” Cavalcante said.

De Carli had left from the southern port of Paranagua and wanted to fly 20 hours due west but winds unexpectedly carried him out to sea in the opposite direction.

Friends and churchgoers have been praying and placing candles at the altar of de Carli’s parish church.

“This is a test of our faith but Jesus tells me he is safe on land,” said parish coordinator Denise Gallas.

“Day and night, people are praying here,” Gallas said.

Firefighters continued to search beaches and islands off the coast of Santa Catarina state, where they thought the 42-year-old Roman Catholic priest may have washed up.

“We check out all reports of possible discoveries but it’ll be increasingly difficult to find him alive,” said Corporal Pedro Luis Alves of the town of Itapema’s fire brigade.

Newspapers and television networks have shown images of bits of balloons floating at sea. Some were found as far south as the city of Florianopolis, roughly 150 km (121 miles) south of de Carli’s last phone contact, firefighters said.

Video footage showed a confident de Carli taking off into cloudy skies on Sunday.

Critics said the adventurous clergyman was reckless in underestimating the region’s complex wind patterns.

Editing by Eric Walsh

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