49 missing in Sao Paulo blaze building collapse: firefighters

Firefighters work to extinguish the fire in a 24-storey building used by squatters that later collapsed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest city in Latin America

Sao Paulo (AFP) – Forty nine people were listed as still missing Wednesday after a 24-storey building occupied 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 declared 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 27 vehicles, 80 firefighters,” the department tweeted. “49 missing.”

Officials gave 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 a lack of even basic fire prevention measures for the speed and ferocity of the blaze. Officials have not said how they think it actually started.

For now rescue teams using search dogs were working slowly in the still hot wreckage, hoping to find someone alive.

“Firefighters are cooling down the rubble in places with the highest temperature, which are monitored with thermal cameras, as well as manually removing rubble. In the first 48 hours this removal must be manual. We don’t use heavy machinery,” spokesman Guilherme Derrite told AFP.

Sao Paulo is Brazil’s financial capital and the most populous city in Latin America, but suffers huge economic inequality. Poor families often squat in disused buildings or set up tents and shacks on vacant land, sometimes next to wealthy areas.

Center-right President Michel Temer, who is Brazil’s most unpopular leader on record, with single-digit approval ratings, got a hostile reception when he briefly visited the scene.

“We want housing!” a crowd chanted before he hurriedly left.

A representative for the former residents, Cristiano Lima, said the squatters were not street dwellers but had been attempting to set up homes.

“We went to a place like this as an alternative, to have a dignified home, a space to call our own,” Cristiano Lima said.