Under the persistent rain outside the makeshift morgue in Teresopolis, one of the worst-hit cities in Brazil’s flood disaster, the sickly sweet smell of decay and death is muted.
Inside, though, “it’s like a scene out of a horror movie,” volunteer worker Michelle Tosetti said.
Bodies have decomposed so badly that identification photos are no longer taken for fear of terrifying relatives and because they no longer served any purpose, she said.
There was also “concern about disease spreading” from the cadavers, many of which had spent days covered in filthy water and mud carrying dangerous bacteria.
The nightmarish condition of bodies being brought in three days after the catastrophe has meant a change of procedure for kin desperate to locate loved ones.
On Saturday, Teresopolis officials set up a special center inside a vacant office near the morgue to get details of who is missing and who can be identified.
No longer are families shown photos and taken through to see the bodies.
Now, they are asked to describe tattoos, teeth and other distinguishing characteristics. And, if necessary, they provide oral DNA swabs to be compared with samples stored from the cadavers.
About 100 people waited their turn outside to speak to the center’s staff, huddling close to the wall as rain fell.
Fernando Goncalves da Silva, 30, said he was hoping to identify his mother, brother and nephew, all of whom died when an avalanche of water, mud and boulders as big as cars crashed through their homes in Campo Grande, near Teresopolis.
“I woke up to a big noise, then there was a sound like thunder. I held on and managed to save my wife and my son,” he said, nursing a bandaged knee.
The scale of the devastation was such that Campo Grande was effectively wiped off the map, he said.
“Most of the residents didn’t survive,” he said, adding that of about 2,500 homes, only “one or two” were left standing.
Oddly calm, Goncalves da Silva said he has spent his time since praying.
“I’m in God’s hands,” he said.
That fatalism was evident on the faces of everyone waiting outside.
Eli Pereira, a 42-year-old soldier who lost his 77-year-old mother in another village, said he had been to the morgue several times looking for her remains.
He understood that bodies were now in a “very advanced state of decomposition” and was patiently lining up to give details.
He said his 47-year-old sister, who lives in the US, but was visiting their mother the night of the landslide, managed to escape, although the sludge and water rose too quickly for their mother to follow.
Tosetti, the volunteer worker, said the incongruent lack of emotion displayed by the relatives was typical.
“I think they are in shock, and many people around here are religious,” she said.
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