‘Occupied’ Sao Paulo high rise collapses amid fire, 1 dead

Published 8:07 am Wednesday, May 2, 2018

SAO PAULO — A high-rise building occupied by squatters in downtown Sao Paulo caught fire and collapsed Tuesday, sending chunks of fiery debris crashing into neighboring buildings and surrounding streets.

Firefighter Lt. Andre Elias told Globo TV that at least one person had been killed.

At the moment the building fell, a firefighter atop a neighboring 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.

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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 1:30 a.m. local time. Firefighters set up a perimeter and worked to evacuate people.

Less than two hours later, the 25-floor building collapsed while Brazilian media were filming. No firefighters were hurt.

By late Tuesday morning, several families who had fled were camping out in front of a nearby church, where neighbors 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 neighboring 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, smoldering debris continued to emit large plumes of smoke.

The fire also burned part of a neighboring 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.