Riga (AFP) – Rescuers in Latvia frantically combed the rubble of a supermarket on Friday, a day after its roof collapsed on shoppers near the capital Riga, killing at least 43 people.
The tragedy shocked the small Baltic state, with the government declaring three days of mourning starting on Saturday and planning to hold a moment of silence on Monday for its worst accident since regaining independence in 1991.
The roof of the Maxima supermarket smashed down on customers during peak shopping hours around 6:00 pm on Thursday in the Riga suburb of Zolitude.
Rescuers rushed to the scene, but many were themselves trapped when the roof caved in a second time.
“Everything was crashing down: the walls, the roof, everything!” witness Jana told LNT television.
“I don’t know what happened to the cashiers — if you were sitting down, there is no way you could have got out in time,” she said.
Viktorija Sembele, a spokeswoman for the state fire and rescue service, told AFP the death toll stood at 43 — up from the previous toll of 33 killed and at least 38 injured — following the cave-in of about 500 square metres of the roof (600 square yards).
Police refused to say how many people were thought to be inside the two-year-old building, and there were fears that teenagers could have been among them as a high school is near the store.
Among the dead were three firefighters who were killed trying to rescue people following the initial cave-in of the roof.
“I am proud of my Dad — he died helping others, not thinking about himself,” said a Twitter message retweeted by the fire and rescue service from a girl named Katrina whose father was among the dead.
Around 200 rescue workers, backed by military personnel, combed through the rubble through the night.
“We are working at maximum capacity but it’s a very dangerous situation in the building — it seems likely we will have to continue working all day long,” said fire chief Oskars Abolins.
Visiting the scene, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said police had launched a criminal investigation to find the cause of the disaster.
“The state will do everything necessary to help the injured and pay compensation where it is appropriate,” he told reporters.
Speculation about the possible cause centred on plans to build a rooftop garden.
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 that they were probing who sounded the alarm and why.
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.
Maxima published a statement on its website saying the company was “overwhelmed and shocked” by the disaster but that it was not yet aware of the cause and was providing “all the information at our disposal” to the authorities.
AFP Photo/Ilmars Znotins