Brazilian authorities searching for 44 people after Sao Paulo skyscraper burns down, in scenes reminiscent of 9/11

The building, a disused former police headquarters, was occupied by 146 homeless families, officials say, blaming lack of even basic fire prevention measures for the accident

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 8:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 9:40pm

Forty-four people were listed as still missing on Wednesday after a 24-storey building used by squatters in central Sao Paulo was engulfed in fire and collapsed, the Brazilian city’s fire department said.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster on Tuesday only three were unaccounted for, including one man who was seconds from being successfully rescued by firefighters before the building suddenly crashed down.

“The fire department is continuing to search, currently with 31 vehicles, 78 firefighters,” the department tweeted. “44 missing.”

There was no indication whether the large number of missing were considered likely to have been killed and buried under the rubble, or whether they simply were not there at the time.

The building, a disused former police headquarters, was occupied by 146 homeless families, officials say, blaming lack of even basic fire prevention measures for the accident.

At the moment the building fell, a firefighter atop a neighbouring building had been trying to save someone from the upper floors. TV images showed the person clinging to the building’s side, while apparently also attached to a rope that the firefighter was holding. Then the wall the person was clinging to started to fall away, taking the person with it. The floors of the burning building collapsed like dominoes, while debris flew in all directions, and a giant fireball briefly filled the street.

Authorities later said that the person killed was the one the firefighter had been trying to save, and a body had not yet been found. Firefighters were using dogs to search for that person and any others in the rubble.

The building, a former federal police headquarters, caught fire around 1.30am local time. Firefighters set up a perimeter and worked to evacuate people.

Less than two hours later, the entire 25-storey building collapsed while Brazilian media were filming, sending up huge clouds of dust and fiery debris. No firefighters were hurt.

By late Tuesday morning, several families who had fled were camping out in front of a nearby church, where neighbours and local businesses were dropping off supplies including bags of bread, milk, bottles of water and even some used clothing and shoes.

Lohany Michely, 37, said she was asleep with her boyfriend and dog in their apartment on the third floor of the building when she began hearing people outside yell about a fire. Seeing smoke, the couple left with their dog, then watched the building collapse about 45 minutes later.

“Entire families lost everything,” she said. “People think that people who live in an occupation are animals. We are not animals. We are human beings.”

Romulo de Souza, 49, said he was part of a squatter occupation in the neighbouring building. He said he watched families evacuating.

“Happily the majority got out,” he said, adding that residents believed the fire could have been started by a gas leak.

Clearing debris and accounting for people who had been inside could take days. Several hours after the collapse, smouldering debris continued to emit large plumes of smoke.

The fire also burned part of a neighbouring building, and authorities said three surrounding structures were evacuated as a precaution.

The fire was in an area known as “Centro,” which is Sao Paulo’s historic downtown. It began emptying out in the 1970s and 1908s after several fires broke out and another business district developed. These days, the neighbourhood is on the cusp of a comeback and is equal parts dilapidated and edgy. Several city administrations have led campaigns aimed at beautifying and redeveloping the area, which now hosts most of the city’s homeless and has numerous blocks occupied by crack addicts.

The fire is sure to put a spotlight on the occupations, which are led by highly organised fair-housing groups that take over and then fight for ownership. Many such dwellings are run like regular apartment buildings, with doormen and residents paying monthly fees. Others are less established and more precarious.

In a July 2017 story on the occupations, The Associated Press reported that around 350 families were living in the former police headquarters. Local media on Tuesday reported that between 50 and 150 were currently living there, underscoring the sometimes fluid nature of such makeshift dwellings.

“It’s a building that didn’t have the most minimal conditions to live in,” Sao Paulo Governor Marcio Franca, who visited the site, told news site UOL, adding that “the occupation should never have been allowed.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse