Scores Perish in Supermarket Collapse
At least 50 people were confirmed dead and hundreds trapped when the roof of a crowded supermarket collapsed during the afternoon rush hour in the Latvian capital of Riga.
Even with the final death toll far from certain Friday (Nov. 22), the disaster Thursday afternoon was declared the country's worst in decades, and a criminal investigation was already underway. The store was only two years old.
"The death toll is rising every hour," a BBC reporter said Friday afternoon.
And a rescue service spokewoman told Reuters: "In the past hours, no survivors have been found."
Estimates of trapped victims ranged from 40 to several hundred Friday afternoon; none of the estimates could be confirmed.
Rescue Workers Crushed
The confirmed dead included three firefighters who were trapped and crushed when an additional section of the roof came down 20 minutes after the first collapse.
Both collapses also brought down walls and windows, burying shoppers and employees in tons of glass, steel and concrete.
|AFP screen grab|
"The death toll is rising every hour," a reporter at the scene said Friday.
In all, about 5,300 square feet of roof was believed to have caved in. Worse, the collapse apparently made it impossible to open the store's electronic doors, closing off escape routes.
Rescue workers called cell phones of the missing and combed store maps and security tapes in their efforts to find victims. The work was painstaking, as the debris and roof remained unstable. Huge cranes were enlisted to pull away concrete slabs and clear paths for rescue.
The rescue and recovery efforts were expected to continue through the weekend, and Latvia's government declared a three-day national period of mourning beginning on Saturday (Nov. 23).
Construction Problem Suspected
The cause of the disaster was under investigation, but initial reports focused on construction of a garden roof on the single-story building, part of a Lithuanian-based retail chain called Maxima XX.
"It is clear that there has been a problem with fulfillment of construction requirements," Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said Friday.
Although Maxima XX was the building's main tenant, the structure also housed a half-dozen other businesses, including a pet shop, bank and beauty shop.
The Maxima XX store had a green roof, and reports said a layer of sand and topsoil between eight and 12 inches deep had been piled on the roof in preparation for the new garden. It was also raining the day of the disaster, which was believed to have soaked the materials and added to the weight atop the structure.
|AFP screen grab|
The rescue and recovery proceeded slowly, given the instability of the roof and the wreckage. The roof collapsed in two phases 20 minutes apart.
Riga Mayor Nils Ušakovs also told reporters that large bags of earth and sand on a weak spot on the roof could have caused the collapse.
Police: 3 Possibilities
Chief of State Police Ints Kuzis announced three possible causes of the disaster after a Crisis Management Council meeting Friday:
Meanwhile, Maxima Latvia representative Janis Beseris told the Baltic News Network: "Judging from information currently available to us, construction work was being carried out on the roof above our store.
"Construction work was also being carried out in the cellar, where it was planned to construct an underground parking lot. SIA Maxima Latvia is not in any way related to either construction project."
The Riga store was built by Re&Re Construction Company, founded in 1993. The company describes itself as "one of the leading construction companies in Latvia."
Re&Re was also carrying out the rooftop garden construction, according to Wikipedia, which cited Latvian news outlets
After the disaster, Ušakovs ordered inspections of all city building projects carried out by Re&Re.
|Wikimedia Commons / AinarsM|
The Maxima XX store was compleded Nov. 3, 2011. Several other businesses occupy the single-story building, which has a green roof.
Re&Re announced Friday that it had met with other companies involved in the construction and would release an "opinion of responsible civil engineers on the possible causes for the tragic event."
It identified the other firms as:
Homburg, Re&Re and KUBS also partnered on an upscale multi-purpose apartment and retail complex called Urebeto in Riga.
Some reports said the €1.4 million (about $18.9 million USD) Maxima XX store had won an architecture prize when it was completed in November 2011, but no further details were available.
Maxima XX is the largest employer, and the most successful supermarket chain, in the Baltic States, reports said.