Dozens Feared Dead in Tehran Plasco Building Fire, Collapse

Inadequate firefighting equipment hampered the process of extinguishing the fire, and the building’s lack of safety standards and substandard quality in storage of wares, were cited as the main factors contributing to the spread of the blaze
Dozens Feared Dead in Tehran Plasco Building Fire, CollapseDozens Feared Dead in Tehran Plasco Building Fire, Collapse

The fate of at least 20-30 people remains unknown after a 17-storey commercial building in downtown Tehran collapsed on Thursday even as firemen were putting out a blaze. 

The fire was first noticed at 7.30 am on the upper floors of the iconic Plasco Building, a shopping center with 600 units and several clothing workshops. It was built in the 1960s.  

Firemen were trying to extinguish the inferno when the building suddenly crumbled. The collapse was shown live on state television and witnesses described it as resembling a horror movie.

The authorities did not immediately release the definitive casualty figures. However, state broadcaster IRIB said that at least 88 people, including 45 firefighters, were injured. About 50 of them were treated on the spot, and over 20 taken to nearby medical facilities. Most of the wounded were released within few hours.

One firefighter with 60% burn injuries, who was admitted to the ICU ward of a nearby hospital, lost his life early Friday.

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf was quoted as saying that “at least 20 firefighters who were trapped under rubble have died,” on Thursday evening. But his statement was soon denied by the state broadcaster that said no bodies had been recovered from the rubble yet, and that the estimated number of deaths “is just an assumption.”

“One of the people trapped in the rubble sent a text message saying five of them are alive,” the judiciary’s website Mizanonline reported.

Soldiers, sniffer dogs and rescue workers were searching the iron and concrete debris after the building came down in a giant cloud of dust, following the blaze that was at first thought to be under control.

The Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani sent condolences to the families of the victims. The president ordered an investigation and compensation for those affected.

Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, who was on a visit to Lorestan Province, returned to the capital Thursday evening after the president’s order. 

First Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri also visited the spot. The government declared Saturday a one-day national mourning.

  Fire Started on 9th Floor

The building collapsed in a matter of seconds despite several hours of effort to control the blaze by firemen. A thick plume of smoke rose over the site after the huge structure came down.

Dramatic TV images showed flames leaping from the top floors before the building crumbled. It remains unclear how the fire began but local media outlets said it started on the ninth floor.

Several consecutive blasts, purportedly due to fuel storage in the higher floors, which state TV said was diesel, triggered the collapse.

Jalal Maleki, a fire department spokesman, told IRIB that 10 fire stations and 38 fire engines responded to the blaze, which was first reported around 8 am local time.

The inadequate firefighting equipment hampered the process of extinguishing the fire and the building’s lack of safety standards and substandard warehouses were cited as the main factors contributing to the spread of the blaze.

More than 200 firefighters were at the scene when the building collapsed and Army Special Forces were also deployed to aid the search and rescue effort.

Those trapped under the rubble were said to be mostly firefighters who were inside the building trying to put out the blaze when it collapsed, and shopkeepers who had rushed back to collect their documents and whatever little they could carry.

Hundreds of people also queued up in hospitals and clinics to donate blood.

Police cordoned off the area and the nearby British, German and Turkish embassies.

“The embassies are protected by special diplomatic police. All the necessary measures have been taken,” IRIB quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying.

  Roads Closed

All streets leading to the building have been closed and cordoned off by the police since the fire broke out and “the restrictions will remain in place until all bodies are found,” said Tehran Police Chief Hussein Sajedinia.

The debris clearing process is slow due to the huge amount of twisted concrete and steel as well as the large numbers of bystanders in the area despite repeated pleas by the police to leave the area and allow for better rescue operations. 

Gasoil spilled in the area is also a risk factor, and the police keep warding off onlookers, most of whom are shop owners in the area or worried families with missing members.

Officials from the police and the firefighting departments repeatedly urged the people to stay tuned only to official news sources such as the state TV for “reliable news and information.” 

Around midnight on Thursday, several underground tunnels were dug from adjacent building at the order of Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi in order to reach the basement level of Plasco. All the efforts, however, remain in vain as access to the trapped group seems impossible after almost 30 hours since the structure caved in.

  First High-Rise in City

The tower was built in the early 1960s by the Iranian-Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian and named after his plastics manufacturing company. It was the first high-rise built in the city. 

A large number of businesses in the building were wholesalers and retailers dealing in textile and garments.

The tower is attached to a multistory shopping mall and is located just north of the city’s sprawling Grand Bazaar. 

Tasnim news agency reported that the business units and shops in the building were not insured because of lack of basic safety standards. 

“We had repeatedly warned the building managers about the lack of adequate safety,” Maleki said, adding that it also lacked the mandatory fire extinguishers.

“Even in the stairwells, a lot of clothing was stored violating safety standards. The managers didn’t pay attention to the warnings,” he said.

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