Hope fades for the floating priest

April 23, 2008 5:59:28 PM PDT
Hopes dimmed on Wednesday for a priest who vanished after sailing into the air under hundreds of colorful balloons. The cleric's former flight teacher called his disappearance a "tragedy foretold."

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Paragliding instructor Marcio Andre Lichtnow, who gave courses to the Rev. Adelir Antonio de Carli three years ago, described him as a "headstrong, anxious individual who was always in a rush."

"After two or three months, I asked him to abandon the course because of these personality traits, which are not the ideal profile for a paraglider," Lichtnow told The Associated Press by telephone. "So what happened comes as no big surprise."

The 41-year-old Roman Catholic priest has been missing since Sunday, when he lifted off from the port city of Paranagua wearing a helmet, an aluminum thermal flight suit, waterproof coveralls and a parachute.

But less than an hour in, de Carli told his support crew by satellite phone that he would not be able to complete the planned flight to the city of Dourados, 465 miles (750 kilometers) away, according to team member Jose Carlos Bom.

"He told us he was beginning to descend over the ocean, but never said he was about to crash into the water," Bom said.

"There was never any panic in his voice."

For the next eight hours, until his phone went dead, de Carli maintained contact with the team, using a GPS device to report his position as he descended.

Searchers went to look for him almost immediately, "but unfortunately we still have no idea where he is." Bom said.

Rescuers in boats, planes and helicopters continued to search Wednesday off Brazil's southern coast, near where a cluster of yellow, orange, pink and white balloons was found floating in the Atlantic. Others hunted through coastal forests for signs of de Carli.

"It is getting harder to hold on to our optimism," said Penha Fire Department commander Johnny Coelho, though the priest had a buoyant chair and enough food and water to stay alive for five days.

The priest hoped his flight would help raise money for a center where truck drivers could stop "to rest and receive the gospel," said Denise Gallas, treasurer at his Sao Cristovao parish.

Lichtnow said de Carli phoned him days before liftoff.

"I told him that the winds would carry him all the way to South Africa," Lichtnow said. "He said he had studied everything very carefully and that he would go ahead. I honestly thought he was joking."


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