SAO PAULO, Brazil >> A high-rise tower in Sao Paulo, Brazil, collapsed early Tuesday after a fire raged through the building and spread to two other structures nearby. At least one person was believed to have died.
The collapsed building, which reached more than 20 stories high, was a former federal police facility that was inhabited by about 150 squatters, city officials said, but it appeared that the vast majority of them escaped the blaze.
The blaze highlighted the shortage of affordable housing in the city. Marcio Franca, governor of Sao Paulo state, estimated that 150 downtown buildings in the city are illegally occupied by squatters living in substandard conditions.
A person was trapped on an upper floor and was calling for help when the building collapsed, and it is very likely that the person was killed, a spokesman for the Sao Paulo Fire Department said. He said firefighters had conducted interviews with many people who had lived in the building intermittently, trying to determine whether anyone else might have been inside when it collapsed.
“We had 167 men on location when it happened — that is a huge deployment for us,” said the spokesman, who is not authorized to give his name. “What happened today was a tragedy.”
No bodies have been recovered from the ruins. Brazilian media reported that one firefighter was injured.
“The building came down like a tsunami,” Maria Aparacida de Souza, 58, who lived on the fourth floor, told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “There wasn’t time to get anything.”
Video shot from a nearby structure showed flames spitting from the lower and middle floors before a sudden collapse.
Jose Antonio da Silva, a street cleaner, told Globo TV: “I lost my TV, my bicycle, clothes, I lost a lot of things. But thank God I didn’t lose my children, for me the most important thing.”
Firefighters said the blaze began in the high-rise around 1:30 a.m., and later spread to a commercial building across the street and an adjacent church. By early afternoon, the fire had been reduced to some remaining hot spots, but most of the firefighters remained on the scene, searching for possible survivors or victims.
President Michel Temer, who was in Sao Paulo for the May Day holiday, visited the wreckage today but left quickly after local residents turned on him in anger. His office put out a statement saying that all possible measures were being taken to provide federal assistance to families affected by the fire.
Franca appeared on the scene in the pre-dawn hours, declaring the incident “a tragedy foretold.”
“There are not the minimal conditions for people to be living in,” he told journalists. “The people who live there are desperate. I repeat, this was a tragedy foretold.”
Sao Paulo’s downtown is a mix of colonial-era buildings, once-glamorous apartments and slightly faded skyscrapers. Housing rights activists and homeless families often seize and occupy empty or abandoned buildings in the city center as a way to pressure authorities to provide affordable housing.
Officials offered no word on a possible cause for the fire.