RIGA (AFP) – Rescuers on Friday pulled bodies from the rubble of a Latvian supermarket after its roof caved in on shoppers, leaving 51 dead in one of Europe’s worst such disasters in decades.
Hopes of finding further survivors were dwindling more than 24 hours after the roof of the Maxima supermarket collapsed during peak shopping hours around 6:00 pm on Thursday, in the Zolitude district of the Latvian capital.
“The death toll is now 51,” Toms Sadovskis, state police spokesman told AFP late Friday.
Riga mayor Nils Usakovs earlier said around 30 other victims were still thought to be trapped under the debris, but he later lowered the toll to just five.
“According to the latest information, there may be five more people beneath the rubble,” he wrote on Twitter, without explaining the revised figure.
Three firefighters among the 200 rescuers who rushed to the scene were among those killed, while other rescue workers became themselves trapped inside during a second collapse.
“Everything was crashing down: the walls, the roof, everything!” one witness named Jana told LNT television in the capital Riga, where flags were draped with black mourning ribbons.
“I don’t know what happened to the cashiers — if you were sitting down, there is no way you could have got out in time,” she said.
Speculation about the possible cause of the cave-in has centred on plans to build a rooftop garden on the building.
The tragedy has shocked the small Baltic state, with the government declaring three days of mourning from Saturday and a moment of silence on Monday for its deadliest accident since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The catastrophe ranks in the top three of Europe’s worst roof disasters of the last 30 years. In 2006, 66 people died when a Moscow market roof collapsed. That same year, 65 people were killed in Chorzow, southern Poland, when a snow-laden roof caved in on an exposition hall.
“In Afghanistan you’re prepared for death every day, but not when you are here at home,” rescue worker and Afghan veteran Maris Utinans told AFP as he worked on the rescue effort late Friday.
Health ministry spokeswoman Egita Pole told AFP a preschooler was among 22 hospitalised with a concussion and bruises, while the latest victim to be rescued, a shop attendant, was hospitalised with broken limbs and head injuries after nine hours under the rubble.
Maxima board member Gintaras Jasinskas told reporters 30 employees were in the store at the time of the cave-in. Two had died and two others were missing, she said.
‘We must stick together’
Rescuers could be seen through a crater in the roof searching through the wreckage by hand and with the help of five large cranes.
“We are working at maximum capacity but it’s a very dangerous situation in the building,” fire chief Oskars Abolins said.
Police were using video images from supermarket surveillance cameras before the collapse to focus rescue work on where people may be found, state police told the Delfi website.
Visiting the scene, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said police had launched a criminal investigation to find the cause of the disaster.
A photograph published by Latvia’s Diena daily Friday showed an aerial view of the roof prior to the collapse, covered in a garden with soil, shrubbery and a children’s play gym.
Outside the supermarket, mourners placed flowers and lit candles by the metal police barricades lining the site of the tragedy.
Many wiped away tears, saying they were still holding out hope that their loved ones would be found alive, even as more bodies were being taken away in blue body bags.
“People have died, so many are suffering, it is easier for me to be here than at home,” said 75-year-old Vanda, who arrived with flowers and a candle.
Charities have offered help, with psychotherapists and crisis counsellors providing free consultations while volunteers have distributed hot drinks and snacks.
“In such times, we must stick together. People here are freezing, they are desperate, and I can only help them with my prayers, hot tea and coffee,” church volunteer Guna, 25, told AFP.
Local council official Juris Radzevics said that plans had been submitted to the council to turn the roof into a green area.
“The project was submitted in accordance with all regulations but of course we will be looking at whether materials and works were carried out to the proper standards,” Radzevics told the LNT television channel.
A police spokesman said emergency sirens had been set off in the store before the cave-in, adding they were probing who sounded the alarm and why.
Run by the Lithuanian-owned Maxima chain — Latvia’s number two retailer after Rimi — the supermarket was built in 2011 and was named one of the country’s top three architecture projects that year.