At least one person is dead and several are missing after a 25-storey abandoned office building occupied by hundreds of squatters became engulfed in flames and collapsed in the centre of Brazil’s largest city Sao Paulo.
Some 400 people were registered as living in the building, which belonged to the government.
Firefighter Diego Pereira da Silva Santos recounted how he and his colleagues just needed 30 seconds more to save a man from the burning building.
Mr Santos said fire fighters had thrown a rope with an improvised harness to a man hanging from the building in the city’s old downtown, and he had managed to secure his leg and shoulders.
But just as his team was ready to tug the man away, the building collapsed, pulling the man into a cloud of red-hot debris.
Dramatic eyewitness video shows the horrifying moment a high-rise building collapses during a massive fire in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
— ABC News (@ABC) May 1, 2018
Authorities said victim is likely to have died, but were still searching for him.
As daylight emerged, firefighters and dogs were continuing to search the smoking rubble – some of which was still too hot to walk over – for the man’s body and any other victims. No firefighters were hurt.
An adjacent building caught fire, but was evacuated and no one was injured. That blaze was brought under control relatively quickly, Sao Paulo Fire Brigade Lieutenant Andre Elias told Globo TV.
The building, a former federal police headquarters occupied by squatters for the past seven years, caught fire around 1.30am local time Tuesday and firefighters worked to evacuate people.
Less than two hours later, the collapsed. The cause of the fire is under investigation.
“Of course, it’s impossible to not be emotional,” Mr Santos later told reporters of the thwarted rescue.
“It was a victim, it was a person who needed help, who shouted for help,” he said.
Mr Santos described how he and his team climbed onto the roof of a neighbouring building – using axes to gain entry.
He said he urged the man to be calm, to look only at the firefighters, to try to ignore the blazing heat coming from the fire.
“He was secured, he was ready,” Santos said. “The problem was the building collapsed and the amount of rubble and hot embers that fell on him.”
The fire is sure to put a spotlight on occupations of other abandoned buildings in Brazil’s biggest city.
The occupations are often led by highly organised fair-housing groups that run the dwellings like regular apartment buildings, with doormen and residents paying monthly fees. Others are less formal and more precarious.
Mayor Bruno Covas ordered civil defence authorities to evaluate the approximately 70 other occupied buildings in the city.
“There is not even a minimal condition for people to live in there,” Sao Paulo state governor Marcio Franca said.
“People live there in desperation. This was a tragedy foretold.”
Mr Covas, told reporters the state government had offered to provide housing for the displaced families, and Brazil’s President Michel Temer also offered federal assistance during a visit to the site.
Mr Temer, a deeply unpopular president because of various corruption scandals and attempts to reduce Brazil’s relatively expansive welfare net, was forced to leave the scene quickly amid jeers from some of the displaced residents.