Thursday, September 24

Rio shaken by collapse of downtown high-rises

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collapsed: Firefighters work among the debris of a collapsed building in Rio de Janeiro. — Reuters photo

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazilian rescuers were combing through rubble early yesterday after three buildings, one of them 20 stories high, collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, injuring at least five people and possibly burying others.

The collapse, apparently caused by structural problems, came as Brazil races to complete preparations to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, which it hopes will highlight its emerging economic and political prowess.

“Three buildings collapsed: a 20-story building, a 10-story building and a smaller building of three or four floors,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters late Wednesday, updating a previous estimate of the damage.

“Giving a total number of victims would be pure speculation,” he added.

Health Secretary Sousa Aguiar said five people had been lightly injured and were at a hospital under observation, adding that the office buildings would have been largely deserted during the night-time collapse.

Television network Globo News, citing civil defence officials, reported “11 casualties — dead and injured” in the incident, which took place near the municipal theater on the city’s Cinelandia square.

The historic district is bustling by day but nearly deserted at night.

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and described scenes reminiscent of Sept 11, with walls of dust and debris. Paes said the cause of the collapse was not yet known, but that it was likely “structural problems.”

Allesandro da Silva Fonseca, who was briefly trapped in an elevator while he tried to escape with four other construction workers, said he almost suffocated from the dust.

“I was out of air. I could not breathe,” he told AFP by mobile phone. All five workers later managed to escape, but it was not immediately clear if they were the same victims referred to by health officials.

A mountain of rubble filled the street, and thick dust covered the cars nearby. The tallest building had housed several law offices, and construction work was being carried out on two separate floors.

A bank branch and a restaurant were located on the first floor of one of the collapsed buildings, but it was not immediately clear if the two businesses were open at the time of the incident.

Dozens of firefighters and emergency personnel rushed to the scene, and Paes said they would comb through the rubble with search dogs through the night.

Brazilian authorities are racing to build or renovate 12 stadiums in time for the 2014 World Cup, one of the world’s premier sporting events.

Last month football’s world ruling body FIFA warned Brazil about delays in the progress of construction projects expected to be ready for the four-yearly football extravaganza.

The Getulio Vargas Foundation and consultancy Ernst Young have said Brazil needs more than US$11 billion in investment to fix roads, boost hotel capacity, reinforce security and develop its telecommunications network ahead of the Cup. — AFP