Beirut planning slammed as building collapse kills at least 19

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Lebanese Red Cross workers and security personnel remove a corpse from the rubble of a six-story building that collapsed in Ashrafieh, Beirut on 16 January 2012. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

Published Monday, January 16, 2012

Beirut’s urban planning has been criticized following the collapse of a six-story Beirut apartment bloc on Sunday night that killed at least 19 people.

The bloc, in the Fassouh neighborhood of Ashrafieh, collapsed around 6pm on Sunday evening, with the death toll possibly reaching over 30, Lebanese officials said on Monday.

Rescue workers have thus far removed 19 bodies, including five Lebanese, eight Sudanese, two Jordanians, one Egyptian, and one Filipino, with more still to be accounted for.

It is believed up to 20 people could still be buried in the rubble.

The building's owner has been arrested and the Director of Public Prosecution has ordered an investigation.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel confirmed on Monday that the owner of the building, Michel Saadeh, had been arrested and is under investigation.

It also emerged that the building was close to a construction site, with a Beirut-based urban planner suggesting that it could have undermined the foundations of the apartment bloc.

Abir Saksouk, an architect and urban planner, said residents pointed the finger at a nearby development as being partly responsible for the collapse.

"There is a construction site really close to it. Partly [I believe] it caused this building to collapse, because the new construction site right next to that old building impacted on the structure of the building," she said.

The collapse of the building was not surprising, for it had been "dying" for months, according to Mohammad, a janitor at a neighbor's building.

"About a month ago, I placed two metal blocks to fortify the building with my two hands after part of the foundation collapsed in the back," he said, looking at the debris with sorrow in his eyes.

2004 law blamed

Saksouk said the collapse was "bound to happen," pointing to increasing negligence in building sites since a 2004 law removed a number of restrictions on new developments.

"It is mostly a problem with the new building law that came out in 2004 which gives [real estate developers] absolute leeway," she said.

"And the whole law was defined and fabricated in a way to benefit real estate developers."

Saksouk said the 2004 law was drafted by real estate developers to their own benefit, granting them virtual autonomy in the construction of new developments, sometimes with tragic consequences.

"People are very, very angry because they have been witnessing the whole city going in a bad direction – so many towers emerging, so many old buildings deteriorating and being replaced by towers," she said.

"They [real estate developers] don't care about the consequences."

The collapse in Ashrafieh is not and should not be treated as an isolated incident, Saksouk said, warning that a future repeat of Sunday’s tragedy is a real possibility.

"[It is] something that is happening across the whole city. Everywhere you walk and you see a new construction site digging in the ground, you just think ‘what the hell is going to happen to the building right next to it?’"

Mayor of Beirut, Bilal Hamad, also warned that "many buildings in Beirut are in danger of collapse."

Building was on brink of collapse

Many knew that the building was uninhabitable and that it could collapse at any moment, including Michel Saadeh, the owner.

Some indicated that he was seen a few minutes prior to the collapse warning the tenants about what would happen following the latest crack in the foundations.

Mohammad said that the blue car parked by the building belonged to a woman who lived on the building's ground floor.

"I know that she always took the car when she went out, but the car is here. She is definitely under the rubble," he said.

The tenants on the first floor are Lebanese. On the second floor lived an old man and his wife.

The third floor was empty whereas Egyptian and Sudanese workers lived on the fourth and fifth floors, Mohammad explained.

A relative of one of the Egyptian tenants refused to talk to anyone, he merely burst into tears.

He was waiting for his relative's rescue at any moment the same way an old man was rescued alive.

The latter was found holding his wife, who was barely alive when they were located.

A Lebanese Red Cross Society (LRCS) member suddenly shouted from atop the rubble..."Some people are still alive. I can hear them moaning. Hand me a water bottle, quickly".

Between now and then, members of LRCS and the civil defense heard moaning from beneath the rubble.

They proceeded to "dig" with their hands in order reach the source of the sound.

These members did not lack any strength, courage or even intelligence. All that was missing was the state.

Hours passed, many stuck under the rubble and advanced equipment nowhere to be seen.

As rescue teams were working hard to find live victims, they stopped when they heard someone shout..."army and security forces [are here]...everybody out now".

It was Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, arriving late to the disaster scene surrounded by military and security forces.

Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil arrived shortly afterwards, and parliamentarians who represent the area followed. Political figures showed up, including President Michel Suleiman.

A security forces member was seen standing near journalists, who thought he was there to ask them to step back.

They smiled when he asked camera holders to head to where the "leaders" were standing.

(Al-Akhbar, AFP)


Surely not the last victims of the ongoing "Dubaification"... I miss old Beirut!

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