Latvia president calls supermarket collapse 'murder'

The rest of the roof collapsed on Saturday

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The Latvian president has described the collapse of a supermarket in the capital Riga as "murder".

Andris Berzins said many defenceless people had been killed in "our own made disaster", and called for foreign experts to investigate what happened.

Fifty-four people have died since part of the roof collapsed on Thursday, and at least seven people remain missing.

Late on Saturday afternoon, the last remaining section of the roof caved in, causing panic in the surrounding area.

Officials have said soil and materials from a garden being built on the roof of the shop may have caused Thursday's collapse.

Start Quote

We cannot call it a natural accident, because nature wasn't involved”

End Quote Latvian President Andris Berzins

Latvia has begun three days of national mourning for the deadliest disaster since the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991.

"These three days of mourning are very necessary to go from the mindset of helplessness to rethinking what each of us has done so that we can act in practical manner, because this is an event where we must clearly say that this is a large scale murder of many defenceless people and act accordingly," President Berzins told public LTV broadcaster.

He said an investigation should be held at "maximum speed".

And he went on to say: "While not undermining the professionalism of our builders, I believe that we should call upon international expertise which is in no way connected with our construction business.

"We cannot call it a natural accident, because nature wasn't involved. The evening was calm and silent with a little fog. This is our own made disaster."

At the scene

Latvian families hold each other and cry, as they lay flowers beside a huge pile of rubble. The remains of supermarket shelves and shop goods, such as toilet rolls, poke out from the broken stones.

But alongside the sorrow, a new feeling is starting to emerge. Anger. A fierce debate has broken out about who is to blame.

In a no-holds barred interview given to Latvian television, President Andris Berzins described the tragedy as the "mass murder" of innocent civilians.

He said the tragedy shouldn't be called an accident because the deaths were not caused by an act of nature.

And he said the criminal probe should be led by independent investigators from abroad - implying that powerful business interests in Latvia are too closely entwined with politics to ensure a fair and honest investigation.

Questions surround whether safety standards were ignored when this building was constructed in 2011; or whether work on a roof garden, which was being built on top of the store, was carried out in a negligent manner.

Fading hopes

As rescuers searched the ruins of the Maxima supermarket at around 16:00 local time (14:00 GMT) on Saturday the final section of the roof collapsed.

The BBC's Damien McGuinness said it caused the neighbouring building from where he was reporting - a shopping centre - to shake violently.

People in the shopping centre at the time panicked and ran out into the street amid fears it too would collapse, he said.

There were no reports of any fatalities. Our correspondent says only the four walls of the supermarket remain standing.

The rescue service immediately suspended operations until Sunday morning, saying it wanted to consult engineers about the risk of further collapse.

Until that point, rescue teams had been working round the clock, digging in the wreckage of the single-storey concrete and glass building to see if anyone was still trapped inside.

They periodically turned off all their equipment and asked the families of missing people to phone their relatives so they could pinpoint the ring tones in the debris.

Ten families have told the police that they believe their loved ones could be under the rubble, our correspondent says.

But, 48 hours on, hopes of finding anyone else alive are fading, he adds. By Saturday evening the death toll had risen from 52 to 54.

Three firefighters and two Russians are confirmed to be among the dead.

Many people have been laying flowers and lighting candles at the site of the tragedy.

Thirteen firefighters were among some 40 wounded, and 29 people were in hospital as of Saturday morning, the fire and rescue service said.

The initial collapse happened just before 18:00 (16:00 GMT) on Thursday, when the Maxima store was busy with customers.

About 20 minutes later another part of the roof caved in, trapping rescue workers who were trying to reach survivors.

People light candles at the scene of the supermarket collapse in Riga on 23 November 2013 Candles have been lit and flowers laid at the scene of the supermarket collapse.
People gather at scene of supermarket collapse in Riga on 23 November 2013 Latvians have begun three days of official mourning for the victims of the disaster
Wide angled view of the site of the collapsed supermarket in Riga on 23 November 2013 A wide-angled view of the supermarket before a third section of roof collapsed
Rescuers in among the rubble of the collapsed supermarket in Riga on 23 November 2013 The rescue effort was called off amid fears of a further collapse
Body removed from scene of collapsed supermarket in Riga on 23 November 2013 But hopes of finding anyone else alive are fading

Witnesses said customers tried to run out after the first part of the roof collapsed but the supermarket's electronic doors closed, trapping them inside.

A rooftop garden with children's playground was being built on the top of the building. There is speculation it may have been unable to support the large amount of building materials and soil that was believed to be on the roof at the time.

Local media said the building, rented by the Maxima chain, had been awarded a national architecture prize when it was completed in 2011.

But the inquiry will now investigate whether building regulations were broken.

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