Latvian leader dubs roof collapse ‘murder’

AFP-JIJI

President Andris Berzins on Saturday demanded that a supermarket cave-in that killed at least 54 people be treated as murder, and rescuers threatened by falling debris halted their search for survivors until dawn.

All search and investigation work was suspended until Sunday morning after a third section of the supermarket’s roof collapsed at 6 p.m. Saturday without causing any further injuries.

Terrifying accounts emerged from survivors of Thursday’s disaster at the Maxima store in the Latvian capital, Riga, as anger and suspicion mounted over its causes.

“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, saying “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.”

A police spokeswoman said 13 people were still reported missing in connection with the collapse, the Baltic state’s worst disaster since independence in 1991 and Europe’s third-deadliest roof catastrophe in 30 years.

But two days later, hope was dwindling that more survivors could be found.

Berzins told public television the case “must be treated as the murder of many defenseless people,” demanding it be “investigated at maximum speed.”

Earlier Saturday, police investigators could be seen sifting through the rubble alongside rescuers at the site where Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs wants to build a memorial.

But after the third collapse, their work was halted.

“We need to ensure the safety of the rescuers,” said fire chief Okars Abolins. Three firefighters were crushed to death when a second collapse occurred Thursday.

The Latvian government confirmed that two Russian citizens were among the victims.

Speculation as to the causes has centered on the extra weight created by a rooftop garden and playground, and on the possibility that building regulations may have been bent.

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