Latvians mourn at least 51 killed in roof disaster

AFP, RIGA

Sun, Nov 24, 2013 - Page 7

Latvians were in mourning yesterday in the wake of one of Europe’s deadliest building disasters, with at least 51 killed after a roof caved in on shoppers in a busy Riga supermarket.

The small Baltic EU state began three days of official grieving over Thursday’s tragedy — Europe’s third-worst roof disaster in the last 30 years — as rescuers kept combing the rubble for survivors.

Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs said five people were still feared trapped inside the Maxima supermarket, whose roof crashed down during peak shopping hours at about 6pm on Thursday, in the Zolitude District of the Latvian capital.

“This has been a hard day for all of Latvia,” Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said on Friday on public television of the catastrophe that shook the nation of 2 million.

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.

“In Afghanistan you’re prepared for death every day, but not when you are here at home,” Afghanistan veteran Maris Utinans said while working on the rescue effort on Friday.

Latvia will also observe a moment of silence tomorrow for the catastrophe, its deadliest since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, while police probe what caused the cave-in at the two-year-old supermarket.

It 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.

Mourners at the disaster site on Friday heaped flowers and lit candles around the metal police barricades as volunteers handed out hot drinks to them and to rescue workers.

“It is a terrible tragedy for the city and the whole country. My friends and I just wanted to pay our respects by coming here to light a candle and lay flowers,” 24-year-old Riga resident Janis Berzins said.

Speculation about the possible cause of Thursday’s cave-in has centered on plans to build a rooftop garden on the building.

A photograph published by Latvia’s Diena daily on Friday showed an aerial view of the roof prior to the collapse, covered in a garden with soil, shrubbery and a children’s playground.

While visiting the scene, Dombrovskis said police had launched a criminal investigation to find out the cause of the disaster.

Run by the Lithuanian-owned Maxima chain — Latvia’s No. 2 retailer after Rimi — the supermarket was built in 2011 and was named one of the country’s top three architecture projects that year.

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.