RIGA, Latvia — As rescue workers searched Friday for bodies in the rubble of a supermarket collapse that killed dozens, speculation about the cause focused on a garden and a playground being installed on the grass- and gravel-covered roof.
The death toll from the Thursday evening rush-hour roof collapse at the Maxima supermarket in Latvia’s capital, Riga, had reached at least 51 by late Friday, police said. Three firefighters were among the dead.
Police opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the collapse at the award-winning building, once vaunted as a place where high-rise residents could step out of their homes, stroll along a shady garden and pick up a few items for dinner.
Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs said large bags of construction materials and soil were left on a weak spot on the roof and could have caused the collapse. It had rained for days, leading to speculation that the soil had become soaked and weighed down.
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Deputy Mayor Andris Ameriks said several reinforced steel beams fell over at once, which might indicate that engineers failed to properly calculate load pressure on the roof. He blamed budget cuts for a lack of construction controls.
“In recent years due to the economic crisis, many institutions, including construction oversight, … were closed in Latvia in order to save money,” Ameriks told Latvian television.
It was the largest tragedy for the Baltic nation since it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Latvia’s government declared three days of mourning starting Saturday.
At least 35 people were injured, 28 of them hospitalized, including 10 firefighters struck just as they entered the unstable building, emergency-medical officials said.
It was not clear how many people were still missing late Friday. The mayor estimated that two dozen people could still be buried. President Andris Berzins spoke of an “unimaginable tragedy.”
The store was filled with shoppers when one enormous section of the roof caved in. Two hours later, while rescue workers searched for survivors, a second and larger section of roof caved in, trapping and killing firefighters.
Nina Kameneva, a retiree who lives on the seventh floor of an apartment building overlooking the supermarket, said she and her husband were in the kitchen when the first collapse occurred about 4:45 p.m. Thursday, producing a jolt so powerful it shook their building.
“It felt like an earthquake,” Kameneva said. She added that “they loaded so much material on that roof over the past two weeks that I simply don’t understand.”
Maxima executive Gintars Jasinks confirmed reports that fire alarms went off about a half-hour before the collapse, but he said no one was evacuated because there was no fire. It was not clear if there was a connection or whether construction work could have triggered the alarm.
State Police spokesman Toms Sadovskis said rescuers hoped to complete the search for survivors by Saturday.
About 5,300 square feet of the roof collapsed, the rescue service estimated, destroying large sections of the store’s high walls and nearly all its front windows.
Several large construction cranes gingerly hauled metal slabs and other debris from the central hole Friday, while bulldozers cleared paths into the store. An all-night rescue effort was planned.
The project, which won a silver medal from the Latvian Builders Association in its competition for best building of 2011, was built on swampy ground in a densely populated area between the airport and Riga’s downtown.
It was completed in November 2011. The Lithuanian-owned Maxima was reportedly renting the space. The Maxima Group, which also owns a chain of pharmacies, has 500 stores in Eastern Europe, and is one of the largest employers in the Baltics.
The Baltic News Service quoted two company executives as saying the retailer planned to pay compensation to employees and shoppers involved in the disaster, including costs of treatment and funerals.
Latvia’s economy underwent a steep decline, with output collapsing some 23 percent over 2008-10. Unemployment reached 25 percent, and the country had to borrow billions of dollars to prevent bankruptcy.
Material from Deutsche Presse-Agentur is included in this report.