Latvia store collapse: was rooftop garden to blame?

Deadly Latvia cave-in comes two days after a nearly-completed South African shopping center collapsed.

Roman Koksarov/AP
Rescuers work at the Maxima grocery store after its roof collapsed in Riga, Latvia, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Latvian rescue officials say a roof at a large grocery store in the country's capital collapsed and killed at least 47 people.
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As rescue workers searched the rubble for survivors after a supermarket roof collapsed on Thursday in Latvian capital Riga, leaving at least 47 people dead, questions began to swirl about whether and how the tragedy could have been avoided.

The news closely followed a similar, though far less deadly, collapse of an unfinished shopping mall in South Africa this week. Both events underscore the risk posed in public spaces as a result of allegedly shoddy construction. In both countries, the tragedies may also have political implications.

The collapse in Riga is still under investigation, reports The Associated Press. It happened around 6 pm, when residents of a densely populated suburban neighborhood crowded the store on their way home from work. At least three firefighters died after the second part of the supermarket roof gave way, just as they were rushing to help people trapped inside. 

Paul Tribble, a British citizen who lives in Riga, told the BBC that he was grocery shopping in the supermarket when the roof caved in and a falling isle knocked him to the ground. He and his partner Elizabeth, who was also at the store, managed to escape nearly unscathed through the loading bay exit. His account gives a glimpse of how crowded the suburban supermarket was during the evening rush:

When we came out into the loading bay there were hundreds of other people out there too. […] The store would have been packed when we were inside. When we arrived there were no trolleys or shopping baskets left and I had to go to the checkout and ask for one that another customer had just finished unloading.

A full day later, rescue crews continued to search the rubble for people trapped inside. The “enormous” section of the collapsed roof may have measured 5,300 square feet, reports the Associated Press.

Rescue workers kept up their round-the-clock search for possible survivors as darkness fell on Friday, periodically turning off all equipment and asking the relatives of missing people to call so they could pinpoint ringing phones. 

While the official cause remained under investigation, one hypothesis is that a sodden winter garden on the roof of the building contributed to the collapse. Stacked above the store were building materials, earth, and sand for building the garden, a load possibly made heavier by water trapped on the roof after several days of rain. 

On his way out from the collapsed building, Mr. Tribble noticed “torrents of water coming down” from the gaping hole above. “I can only think it had no way to drain," he told the BBC.  

The tragedy in Riga comes on the heels of an incident in the South African city of Durban, where a soon-to-be-opened shopping center collapsed on Tuesday, trapping several dozen construction workers under the rubble and killing one. The cause is under investigation, Reuters reports. Construction practices and safety procedures were instantly called into question. 

If there is one commonality between the two incidents, it’s that faulty construction and maintenance practices that put people at risk in public spaces may carry far-ranging political implications. The tragedy in Riga “is a blow for Latvia," writes The Wall Street Journal, "coming little more than a month before the former Soviet state is set to join the euro zone.” The Latvian prime minister confirmed that a criminal investigation had been launched. What it manages to uncover on the local level of a Riga suburb may have repercussions much higher up. 

Similarly in South Africa, the ongoing probe into the accident may undermine the country’s governing political party, says a Reuters report from this Wednesday:

If safety regulations are found to have been flouted, the accident could damage [South Africa’s] ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it moves toward an election next year because of widespread perceptions of incompetence and corruption in local government.

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