Death toll in Latvian store collapse jumps to 47

RIGA Fri Nov 22, 2013 9:58pm IST

1 of 4. A firefighter watches the rescue operation at the site of the collapsed Maxima supermarket in Riga November 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

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RIGA (Reuters) - Rescue workers pulled bodies from the ruins of a collapsed supermarket in the Latvian capital Riga on Friday as the death toll rose to 47 in the Baltic state's worst disaster in decades.

Cranes lifted large slabs from the wreckage of the Maxima store, in a Riga suburb of grey, Soviet-era housing, to find those trapped after the roof collapsed late on Thursday when it was full of shoppers on their way home from work.

Rescue workers cleared away rubble from the store, which had occupied around 1,500 square metres (5,000 square feet), as ambulances and fire engines stood by.

Police said the death toll had reached 47 as of 1500 GMT, including three rescue workers. Thirty eight more were injured.

"In the past hours, no survivors have been found," said Viktorija Sembele, a rescue service spokeswoman.

To help rescuers look for people in places where shoppers actually were during the collapse, police have created a map based on tapes from security cameras.

Latvian public television said as many as 40 people could still be trapped in the rubble, based on information from the cameras, but neither Sembele nor police could confirm the figure.

"Every hour, air temperature, high air moisture - they are factors that reduce possibility to find some survivor. But, of course, hope always remains," Armands Plorins, chief of emergency ambulance service told TV.

The cause of the collapse remains unknown, but Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said: "It is clear that there has been a problem with fulfilment of construction requirements."

Local media said workers had been building a roof garden on the supermarket, a single-storey building located about a 30- minute drive from the city centre.

Soil, grass and parts of a new walkway could be seen dangling from the edges of the collapsed rooftop.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis announced three days of mourning from Saturday and said the collapse had shattered Latvia, a former Soviet republic which joined the European Union nearly a decade ago and will join the euro zone next year.

"In our thoughts we are together with all those stricken by this tragedy," Dombrovskis said. "No matter what the cause of the tragedy is, the number of victims is too big."

Among other post-Soviet disasters to hit the country of two million, 23 Latvians perished along with about 800 others in 1994 when an Estonian ferry sank in the Baltic Sea. Twenty six people died in 2007 in a blaze at a Latvian care home.

HOPE

Earlier on Friday, about 50 people gathered near the ruins for news of relatives, while others brought candles and flowers.

"I have a wife there. There is no information about her, whether she is dead or alive. Wherever I call, there is no information," Igor Umanov told Reuters Television. He said he believed his wife was alive.

A girl at the scene told public radio she had gone into the shop with her mother when a concrete block collapsed between them and that she was nearly buried in rubble. She managed to escape but had not yet found her mother.

Other witnesses said there was a loud noise and the store went dark. People escaped through holes in the windows.

Rescue workers were called late on Thursday to the store, which according to local media had been awarded an architecture prize when it was completed in 2011. Several were injured by a second collapse because of the building's weakened structure.

Rescue workers were halting work periodically to listen for survivors and for the sounds of mobile phones in the wreckage, Latvian television said.

State fire and rescue service chief Oskars Abolins told Latvian TV that heavy concrete blocks were hampering rescue efforts, adding: "As we have to search all the rubble and the whole construction, rescue work might continue for another day."

(Additional reporting by Janis Laizans and Ints Kalnins,; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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