Latvia probes store disaster as death toll rises to 52 and hopes dim of survivors

AFP-JIJI

Latvian investigators and rescuers combed the ruins of a Riga supermarket for clues and bodies Saturday after its roof crashed down on shoppers, killing at least 52.

Hope was dwindling of finding any survivors two days after the roof of the Maxima supermarket caved in and the small Baltic state began mourning the victims of its worst disaster since independence in 1991.

As horrific accounts of the tragedy emerged from some of the 40 known survivors, anger and suspicion mounted over the causes of Europe’s third-deadliest roof collapse in 30 years.

“I was queueing at the cash desk when the roof suddenly caved in. It all happened within a few seconds,” said 19-year-old Antons Ryakhin, adding “about 100 people” had been inside with him.

“It was dark but still light enough to see the exit. I ran out. The doors were open, but a lot of rubble fell in front of them — I think that’s why some people couldn’t get through,” he said.

Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs said Friday that five people were feared trapped inside but it was unclear how many were still believed to be missing Saturday.

“Much of the site has been checked but the structures that remain include some of the largest, heaviest blocks which are particularly dangerous,” fire and rescue service spokeswoman Viktorija Sembele said.

Police investigators could be seen sifting through the rubble alongside rescuers Saturday. The latest body was hauled from the mass of tangled steel and concrete at 6:00 a.m.

Speculation has centered on the extra weight created by a rooftop garden and playground and on the possibility that building regulations may have been bent. “It’s probably the same old story — do it cheap and pocket the difference. But it is ordinary people who pay the real price,” Riga taxi driver Arsenijs Smirnovs said.

Maxima spokeswoman Olga Malaskeviciene said the company had launched safety checks at its 140 other stores in Latvia and plans similar reviews in Lithuania and Estonia.

“The cause remains a mystery, but it must be discovered. Obviously if a mistake was made it was a massive one,” said Marite Straume, spokeswoman for the Re&Re firm that did the building work. “The strange thing is at the time of the collapse we were replacing the heavy rocks that had been there for two winters with much lighter materials to make the garden. The roof was actually getting lighter.”

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

“Visually the building looked great but it is more important to get the technical engineering right than the looks,” Sergejs Meierovics of the Latvian association of building engineers said.

Part of the roof of the 2-year-old supermarket crashed down during peak shopping hours around 6:00 p.m. Thursday, in the Zolitude district of the Latvian capital. A second collapse crushed to death rescuers who had already entered the building.

Thousands of glowing candles and heaps of flowers decked the perimeter crash barriers surrounding the site Saturday, placed by a constant stream of shell-shocked residents. “I don’t even know why I’m here. It just seems important. Maybe if there is still someone in there they can feel that we are here,” pensioner Normunds Andersons said.

Flags were being flown from houses across the country with a black sash attached as Latvia began a three-day period of national mourning. Just days after Nov. 18 independence celebrations, the tragedy snuffed out an upbeat mood in Latvia, with 2014 set to mark its entry into the eurozone and showcase Riga as the latest European capital of culture.

Child Protection Inspectorate head Laila Rieksta-Riekstina told Latvian Radio Saturday that “16 children lost one parent and one child has unfortunately lost both parents” in the tragedy.

The state fire and rescue service website paid tribute to the three firefighters who died, describing them as “more like family members than colleagues.”

Books of condolence have been opened at Latvian embassies, including in Britain, Canada, Ireland, Poland, Russia, Poland and the U.S., while world leaders have also expressed sympathy.

The central government, Riga city council and the Maxima retailer have promised compensation to victims and charities are also raising cash.