Rescuers have removed bodies from a Latvian supermarket whose roof had crashed down on shoppers, as the death toll from the country’s worst post-Soviet disaster rose to 49 with 30 more feared trapped under the rubble.
Hope of finding more survivors was dwindling some 24 hours after the roof of the Maxima supermarket caved in during peak shopping hours on Thursday, in the Latvian capital of Riga.
“We now have 49 deaths with most probably another 30 people inside. Most likely these will all be dead,” said Riga mayor Nils Usakovs on Friday.
“We hope there will be survivors but now its more than 24 hours and the chances are not that high.”
Three firefighters among the 200 rescuers who rushed to the scene were killed and others were trapped inside when the roof collapsed a second time.
“Everything was crashing down: the walls, the roof, everything!” one witness Jana told LNT television in Riga, where flags on Friday were draped with black sashes of mourning.
“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.
The tragedy shocked the small Baltic state, with the government declaring three days of mourning starting on Saturday and a moment of silence on Monday for its deadliest accident since independence in 1991.
“In Afghanistan you’re prepared for death every day, but not when you are here at home,” Afghan veteran Maris Utinans told AFP as he worked on the rescue effort late Friday.
Health ministry spokeswoman Egita Pole told AFP a preschooler was among 22 hospitalised with a concussion and bruises, while the latest patient – a shop attendant – was hospitalised with broken limbs and head injuries after nine hours under the rubble.
Maxima board member Gintaras Jasinskas told reporters 30 employees were in the store at the time of the cave-in, and two had died and two others were missing.
Rescuers could be seen through a crater in the roof searching through the rubble by hand and with the help of five large cranes.
“We are working at maximum capacity but it’s a very dangerous situation in the building,” fire chief Oskars Abolins said.
Police were using video images from supermarket surveillance cameras before the collapse to focus rescue work on where people may be found, state police told the Delfi website.
Visiting the scene, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said police had launched a criminal investigation to find the cause of the disaster.
Speculation about the possible cause centred on plans to build a rooftop garden.
A photograph published by Latvia’s Diena daily Friday showed an aerial view of the roof prior to the disaster covered in a garden with soil, shrubbery and a childrens’ play gym.
Mourners heaped flowers and lit candles around metal police barricades surrounding the disaster site as dozens gathered, crying and holding out hope that their loved ones would still be found alive, even as more and more bodies were hauled out of the rubble and taken away in blue body bags.
“People have died, so many are suffering, it is easier for me to be here than at home,” said 75-year-old Vanda, who arrived with flowers and a candle.