Rescuers search for missing Brazil balloon priest

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Ships and planes searched along the coast of Brazil on Wednesday for a priest who disappeared after drifting out to sea suspended from hundreds of helium-filled party balloons, authorities said.

Roman Catholic priest Adelir Antonio de Carli, 42, flies in a harness-like seat suspended from 1,000 balloons of various colors in the southern port of Paranagua April 20, 2008. REUTERS/Handout

Rescue workers said they had not given up hope of finding Father Adelir Antonio de Carli even though bunches of the multicolored balloons had been found floating on the sea.

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

De Carli told friends in his last mobile telephone call on Sunday night that his contraption made of 1,000 balloons would soon crash into the Atlantic Ocean.

He 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.

“The search area has broadened and there are more planes and ships involved today,” Alfredo Moraes de Araujo, fire brigade commander in the coastal town of Sao Francisco do Sul, told Reuters.

Rescue workers will search one of the islands off the coast of Santa Catarina state, where they believe the 42-year-old Roman Catholic priest may have washed up, Araujo said.

Bits of balloon were also found near Porto Belo, roughly 150 km (94 miles) south of de Carli’s last phone contact, he said.

Friends said remaining balloons or flotation chambers in his harness-like seat may have helped de Carli float.

“We certainly have lots of hope he will turn up; they found 50 balloons. He still has lots; there were 1,000,” said Eliana Aparecida dos Santos at the parish where de Carli worked.

Araujo said the priest may have been reckless.

“He wasn’t prepared for an emergency at sea; he didn’t wear a life vest or anything of the sort,” he said.

The chaplain, who reached an altitude of more than 16,400 feet at one point in this latest flight, was blown across Brazil’s border with Argentina during a test flight in January.

Additional reporting by Julio Villaverde in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Eric Walsh