Dozens of firefighters were feared trapped under the rubble after Iran’s oldest high-rise, the 15-storey Plasco building in downtown Tehran, collapsed live on TV on Thursday following a fire.
State television said 200 firefighters had been called to the scene and “tens” may have been inside when the building collapsed.
Officials had yet to confirm if anyone had been killed, but the head of Tehran’s emergency services told state TV that at least 70 people had been injured and 23 hospitalised before and after the building fell.
“I think there are about 40 to 50 people still inside,” said Ali, a firefighter at the scene.
“I was inside and suddenly I felt the building is shaking and is about to collapse. As we gathered colleagues and got out, a minute later the building collapsed,” he told AFP.
Dramatic images showed flames pouring out of the top floors of the building, which dated from the early 1960s and included a shopping centre and clothing workshops, just before it came down.
“The building’s caretaker and some firefighters were inside when the building collapsed,” said Ahmad, the owner of one of its shops.
“I’ve lost my entire stock. Thousands of families have been ruined,” he added.
The steel skeleton of the building could be seen bending down to the ground as around 100 fire engines and dozens of ambulances surrounded the area.
“A friend of mine has a shop there. I keep calling him but there’s no answer. I think he’s been trapped,” said Mohsen, an onlooker.
A crisis meeting was being held at the scene with Tehran’s governor, police chiefs and officials from the Red Crescent. The army was also deployed to assist with the rescue effort.
“There a number of people inside but we don’t know how many and the fire brigade organisation is going to announce how many were there,” Tehran police chief Hossein Sajedinia told AFP.
“Even one would be too many,” he added.
– Ignored warnings –
Fire brigade spokesman Jalal Malekias said the building was known to breach safety standards.
“We had repeatedly warned the building managers about the lack of safety of the building,” he said, adding that it lacked sufficient fire extinguishers.
“Even in the stairwells, a lot of clothing is stored and this is against safety standards. The managers didn’t pay attention to the warnings,” he told state television.
The Plasco building contained some 400 business units as well as workshops.
It was the first high-rise and shopping centre in Tehran and was the city’s tallest building when it was finished in 1962, before being dwarfed by the construction boom of later years.
It was built by Habibollah Elghanian, a prominent Iranian-Jewish businessman who was arrested for ties to Israel and sentenced to death and executed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The fire is thought to have begun on the ninth floor and spread quickly to workshops above.
Firefighters were initially able to bring it under control but it quickly flared up and the building fell four hours after the fire had started, at around 11:30 am (0800 GMT).