Latvians were in mourning in the wake of one of Europe’s deadliest building disasters, with at least 50 killed after a roof caved in on shoppers in a busy Riga supermarket.
The small Baltic EU state on Saturday 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 around 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) on Thursday, in the Zolitude district of the Latvian capital.
“This has been a hard day for all of Latvia,” Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said late Friday on public television of the catastrophe that shook the nation of two 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,” Afghan veteran Maris Utinans told AFP while working on the rescue effort late Friday.
Latvia will also observe a moment of silence on Monday for the catastrophe, its deadliest since 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 late Friday lay heaps 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,” Janis Berzins, 24-year-old Riga resident, told AFP.
Speculation about the possible cause of Thursday’s cave-in has centred on plans to build a rooftop garden on the building.
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.
Visiting the scene, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said police had launched a criminal investigation to find the cause of the disaster.
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.
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.