Rio De Janeiro, Jan 13 (Agencies): Torrential summer rains tore through Rio de Janeiro State's mountains, killing at least 140 people in 24 hours, Brazilian officials have said.

Rescuers using heavy machinery, shovels and bare hands struggled to dig through tons of mud and debris in a search for survivors.

In Teresopolis, a town 65 km north of Rio, flash floods tossed cars into trees and mudslides poured tons of red earth over houses below.

At least 114 died, according to a local Civil Defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.

She added that 26 centimetres of rain fell on the town during 24 hours.

Survivors waded through waist-high water, carrying what belongings they could, trying to reach higher ground.

Floodwaters continued to flow down the mountains, though rains had stopped.

"I've lived here 25 years and I've never seen anything like it," Teresopolis citizen Manoel Rocha Sobrinho told the Folha de S Paulo newspaper.

"I live on high ground and when I looked below, I only saw a sea of mud. Most people saved themselves by climbing trees."

With the new disasters, nearly 200 people have died since Christmas across the southeastern portions of the country.

The mayor of Teresopolis decreed a state of emergency, calling the calamity "the worst to hit the town." About 800 search-and-rescue workers from the state's civil defence department and firefighters dug for survivors.

"There was no saying what would collapse. Rich people's homes, poor people's homes. Everything was destroyed," Fernanda Carvalho, 27, a house cleaner, told Globo TV.

In neighbouring Petropolis, 18 people were confirmed dead by the city's mayor.

The death toll in the region is expected to rise as firefighters reach remote valleys and steep mountainsides where neighbourhoods were destroyed, said Jorge Mario Sedlacek, the mayor of Teresopolis. About 1,000 there were left homeless.

"This is the largest catastrophe in the history of this town," said Sedlacek in an interview with Globo TV.

Eight people died in the neighbouring mountain town of Nova Friburgo, including four firefighters who were engaged in the rescue effort, according to a statement by Rio de Janeiro State's civil defence authorities.

One fire truck was hit by a landslide, and three firefighters remained missing on Wednesday.