Mourners leave flowers, candles and Latvian flags at the site of the Maxima shopping center that collapsed on November 21. Riga honored the victims with three official days of mourning over the weekend and an official investigation into the tragedy has been launched.
RIGA - Search and rescue teams looking for survivors at the scene of Latvia’s worst post-independence disaster were called off Monday afternoon, four days after the roof collapsed at a neighborhood Maxima shopping center, taking the lives of 54 rush hour shoppers and rescue personnel.
What was a typical weekday evening for many buying necessities on their way home from work turned to tragedy after the roof – a construction site at the time – caved in showering steel and concrete on those below. Three rescue workers were killed as a portion of the roof fell on them as they responded to the initial collapse.
First reports said the cave-in, at 18:00 in the evening of Nov. 21, might have been caused by the continuing construction work on the roof. Though construction was not going on at the time of the collapse, the roof was a construction site, and the store continued to operate during construction hours.
Eyewitnesses told LETA that the total area of the collapsed roof section was around 500 square meters.
Riga Construction Board’s head Inguss Vircavs said in an interview with Latvian State Radio on Nov. 22 that a “green” roof was being built for the supermarket, with benches and other infrastructure. It is impossible to say with any certainty currently what exactly triggered the d
isaster, but one of the possible reasons could be violations of the relevant construction rules during this construction activity on the roof, he said.
As the investigation begins, speculation as to the cause abounds. In an interview on the LNT television channel on Nov. 23, State Police Chief Ints Kuzis said that the police investigation into the supermarket tragedy will be “quick, effective and thorough.”
The risk here is that there is a rush to judgement, before a thorough collection of evidence and its analysis is complete.
Case in point: before the results are in, Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs already ordered the Riga Construction Board to inspect all buildings currently being constructed by the Re&Re construction company, the main building contractor for the Maxima store.
The police have gathered a team of leading construction experts to help with the investigation. Other evidence is also being collected. The police believe that the main reason for the collapse is construction violations.
Re&Re is coming to terms with the tragedy and is looking for what may have caused it. If proved guilty, Re&Re is prepared to take “full responsibility for what has happened,” the company said in a statement.
The company is cooperating with the authorities, and all the necessary information and documents at the company’s disposal were handed over to the authorities last week. Re&Re CEO Ainars Paunins participated in the Cabinet of Ministers’ emergency meeting on Friday.
On Saturday and Sunday Re&Re board members participated in the Crisis Management Council’s meetings, and they have provided technical support to the rescuers at the scene of the disaster.
Re&Re, along with the companies involved in the construction process, construction supervisory company CMConsulting, architectural firm Kubs, structural engineering company HND Group along with Homburg Group, the owner and developer of the property, have formed an action group that has begun evaluating the entire construction documentation and conducting a comprehensive investigation in collaboration with independent experts, the group said in a press release.
Their initial response included the statement, by Ivars Sergets, representative of HND Group: “we have no reason to question the correctness of the building’s technical specifications. The roof with an area of more than 4,000 square meters was constructed for a maximum load of 1.5 tons per square meter, and therefore it was capable of withstanding a much higher weight than that of peat substrate or decorative pebble stone.
It must be emphasized that the building had been in operation for two years, and the amount of snow during the winter season substantially exceeded the weight of the peat covering.”
The police are looking at three possible scenarios. The first is that architectural design and construction supervision standards may have been violated.
The second is that construction regulations could have been violated during the first stage of the construction of the Maxima store, and the third deals with possible violations during the recent upgrades to the building.
Whether Latvia has enough manpower, or expertise to conduct such an investigation is in question. The need for outside – and transparent – investigative assistance and direction may become apparent as the investigation continues.
Re&Re representative Marite Straume said experts would determine the cause of the tragedy, therefore none of the theories the police have put forward so far can be discarded - faulty design, errors during the construction process, improper maintenance. This list also needs to include possible corruption in the construction process, or just plain incompetence.
Bringing foreign experts to Riga is the only way to establish the actual cause of the Zolitude disaster, believes Cameron Greaves, former head of the British Chamber of Commerce in Latvia. Foreign experts should start work in Riga as soon as possible, and this is the only acceptable way to find out what happened and who must be held responsible, Greaves told LETA.
“Of course, these experts must not be associated with the Latvian construction business. I, just like everyone else, suspect that neither Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, nor the Association of Civil Engineers can be completely unbiased and transparent in investigating this national tragedy,” said Greaves.
The collapse was most probably due to an error in the construction design, guesses Latvian Association of Civil Engineers head Martins Straume, speaking to Nozare.lv.
“Connections of structural steel members are most likely to blame,” he said.
The association too established a special commission to assess possible mistakes on the part of construction experts involved in the construction and reconstruction process, and consider suspending their certificates.
Without placing guilt, Mayor Usakovs also decided to suspend six members of the Riga City Council’s construction board who authorized documents on construction and reconstruction of the supermarket.
Were substandard materials used in the construction, such as poor quality steel?
Metal structures were supplied and installed by Vikom Industry, whereas roof panels by Consolis. CE Consulting representative Markuss Molls said that samples of metal structures and concrete used in construction of the Maxima store were checked on a regular basis, and no deviations had been ascertained.
Participants in a press conference said there were not too many construction supplies on the roof at the time. Most of the supplies were on the ground next to the building, and those on the roof were of total weight that the building was designed to bear, they claim.
Vircavs, however, who visited the site, said that it may be that construction supplies had been placed in wrong places on the roof, disregarding the permissible loads certain roof sections could bear.
Survivors carry on
The families of the fallen rescuers working at the scene will receive 50,000 lats (71,400 euros) in compensation, Interior Ministry State Secretary Ilze Petersone-Godmane said during a Nov. 22 emergency government meeting. She explained that the money will be taken from emergency funds from the national budget.
Usakovs, in turn, said the families of victims of the Zolitude tragedy will each be paid a one-off benefit of 10,000 lats, whereas those hospitalized will receive up to 5,000 lats, depending on their condition. The Riga City Council will also cover funeral costs and offer other assistance to the families.
Irena Kondrate, head of the Riga City Council’s Welfare Department, said the social services were working non-stop. She said the department would consider the best ways to help a child who has lost both parents in the tragedy, as well as to a woman who will possibly have to have both her arms amputated.
Social workers are working to help the relatives of the victims both on site as well as in places where relatives are called to identify bodies.
Many people have been calling the Riga municipal help-line offering their assistance, said Riga City Council Welfare Department spokeswoman Lita Brice. People are offering to look after victims’ children or pets, to donate warm clothing, or just to lend a helping hand.
Meanwhile, the families of the victims are calling in for information on psychological support. People are also asking for assistance in funeral arrangements.
More than 600,000 lats has been donated to the families of the disaster, says the Ziedot.lv charity portal.
To donate, call the (371)90006385 charity phone number, or donate via the www.ziedot.lv Web site.
Despite Usakovs’ possibly premature calls for arrests - on Nov. 25 he said that the police in gathering evidence at the scene have enough to hand down several prison sentences, though without mentioning the culprits - investigators have a lot of work ahead of them.
Maxima Latvija spokesman Janis Beseris told Nozare.lv that there was some sort of sound, signal before the collapse. Beseris said that what kind of signal it was will be determined by the police investigation, but emphasized that supermarket chain representatives have been requested by police not to comment on unofficial information, so not to hinder the investigation.
The State Police and construction experts have video recordings from surveillance cameras to evaluate.
As the evidence is collected and sorted through, the public awaits the announcement as to the actual cause of the collapse. What they expect is a full and transparent investigation by the experts, and to ascertain blame where due.
The victims’ families have work ahead in rebuilding shattered lives.
Marcis Skadmanis’ condolences: To my beloved sister and father Lost in the tragedy in Riga on November 21
As the founder & CEO of the Latvian British Chamber of Commerce, I would like to send my condolences to all the families that lost loved ones in this week’s Maxima supermarket tragedy in Riga - a real national tragedy. As someone who lost two family members - both my father, Mr. Janis Skadmanis, and my young sister Ms. Daina Skadmane - in this tragedy, all my family and I know firsthand the pain, sadness and anger every other family’s victims feels. We are all still in shock and wish our loved ones are in a better place now - blessed by God.
My father worked for more than 15 years for the Latvian Interior Ministry - dedicating his time for all Latvians and helping our young state to stand on its own two feet since 1990 - Latvian’s independence. My young and beloved sister was born in 1990 - a brave young soul, taken from us at the age of only 23. A talented artist in her own right, with several exhibitions under her belt and art work are exhibited around the world. And she loved taking part in many art competitions, including winning the 2014 Riga’s Christmas Tree competition with her “Christmas Tree in the Wind.” I can only hope Riga’s Council will stand by their word, and still create the artistic tree Daina designed. In memory of our beloved Daina - but also as a memorial tree for all the victims of the tragedy - which words cannot express the sorrow and pain we all feel during these horrible times.
Marcis L. Skadmanis, Latvian British Chamber of Commerce in the UK