Rescuers in India pulled a four-year-old boy from the rubble of a collapsed building to loud cheers on Tuesday, hours after the five-storey apartment block came down “like a house of cards”, killing 13 and burying up to 60 others.
The accident late Monday in the western town of Mahad prompted a police probe and led three disaster-response teams and sniffer dogs to work through the night, combing tin sheets, twisted metal and broken bricks.
Officials said many residents of the 47 flats inside the building were spared because they had already fled the town to escape the coronavirus pandemic.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear but building collapses are common during India’s June-September monsoon, with old and rickety structures buckling after days of non-stop rain.
National Disaster Response Force spokesman Sachidanand Gawde told reporters that locals and emergency workers had retrieved the bodies of 13 victims in addition to the little boy who survived the collapse.
Video of the rescue effort showed onlookers applauding and cheering as the child was plucked out of the wreckage and hauled up on a stretcher.
Estimates of the number trapped ranged from 20 to 70 on Tuesday morning after dozens managed to flee when the building began to shake.
“No one knows how many people are actually stuck inside,” a Mahad police official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that authorities had initially feared much worse, with early estimates as high as 200.
Shell-shocked residents said they had previously complained to the builder about the condition of the complex, with police launching an investigation against him and four other people in connection with the tragedy.
“We hope to arrest them by tomorrow,” a police official told AFP late Tuesday.
Local politician Manik Motiram Jagtap told TV9 Marathi that the building was 10 years old and built on “weak” foundations.
“It fell like a house of cards,” Jagtap said.
– Desperate search –
Mahad legislator Bharat Gogawale told AFP that many of the building’s occupants appeared to have been out shopping when the accident occurred at about 7:00 pm.
Others had left the town altogether, preferring to wait out the pandemic in their home villages.
As emergency workers made their way through the wreckage, looking for survivors, distressed relatives watched, desperate for news of their loved ones.
“Three people from my family are stuck under the rubble — my mother, my sister, and my nephew,” said Gazala, a doctor who preferred to give only her first name to AFP.
Mustafa Chafekar, a resident who had been in home quarantine after testing positive for the virus, told the Mumbai Mirror that he and his family of five initially thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
“We ran down immediately… The whole (building) collapsed right in front of us,” the 39-year-old said.
In another incident highlighting the precarious state of India’s infrastructure, a three-storey residential building collapsed in central Madhya Pradesh state on Tuesday following heavy rains.
Emergency workers rescued half a dozen people, using shovels and in some cases their bare hands to remove the debris, but local authorities said at least six others were feared trapped, with recovery operations stretching late into the evening.
The monsoon plays a vital role in boosting agricultural harvests across South Asia. But it also causes widespread death and destruction, unleashing floods, triggering building collapses and inundating low-lying villages.
The death toll from monsoon-related disasters this year has topped 1,200, including more than 800 in India.
The Mahad accident is a further blow to the state of Maharashtra, already hit hard by the coronavirus, and accounting for over a fifth of India’s more than three million infections.
The pandemic has also cast a shadow over the ongoing Ganesha Chaturthi festival, with Hindu devotees ordered to sharply scale down celebrations and rituals honouring the much-loved elephant god.