Four feared dead as building collapses

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The Independent Online
Two men died and two others were missing last night when a three-storey office block near Heathrow collapsed, just a day after a meeting on the site had discussed the structural safety of the building.

The building, in Ashford, Middlesex, collapsed yesterday afternoon while a team of workers were completing the final stages of a renovation project. The site agent, Ron Martin, of Portsmouth, and another man who was not named were found dead by fire and ambulance crews shortly after they arrived. Another two were last night missing but presumed dead.

Yesterday afternoon a team of 35 fire officers, paramedics, ambulance crews and police using cranes, hydraulic equipment, sniffer dogs and infra- red detection equipment carried out a rescue operation among the tons of smashed concrete and steel.

Workers on the site involved in both renovation work and the construction of a new block of offices, said the collapse had been sudden, engulfing the area in a dense cloud of dust. The two dead men and the two still missing were working inside the building when it collapsed. Workers on other parts of the building pulled at the rubble with their bare hands until rescue workers arrived.

The renovation work was for the building merchants Hall & Co, a subsidiary of Readymix concrete. The site contractors were John Lay & Company based at Portsmouth.

Representatives of the architects, Trowbridge Steel, based in Southampton, said they had no idea why the building collapsed. Partners Richard Cooper and Robert Coombes said that "there had been a strengthening exercise" on it.

On Monday a site meeting in Ashford between their structural engineer, contractor and architects had discussed, Mr Coombes said, "mainly the new building". However, some site builders said they "had regarded the renovated building as unsafe".

Amid the rescue efforts, one of the site workers, Derek Butler, 46, of Chertsey, Surrey, who had narrowly escaped death and had dried blood covering his back where masonry had fallen, described how they had just started work after lunch when one end of the building collapsed. "One minute I was standing in a room, then there was an almighty crash and when I opened the door on the first floor there was just nothing there," he said.

"There had been a few structural problems - there just seemed to be more and more problems. There had been concern over the overall structure. You think that it's unsafe, but you don't think it will collapse . . . You never know when a thing like that can happen and you are that close to death."

Both Mr Butler and two of his colleagues said areas of breeze blocking had been removed from underneath the windows. Bricklayers were then supposed to "make the area more sound".

Mr Butler added: "That's what they were doing when it collapsed and they had agreed that's what they were going to do at [Monday's] meeting."

David Yewer, from one of the sub-contracting firms working on the new building, said: "Some of us got there within three or four minutes but there was no way we could do anything - they had zero chance - and it could have been any of my lads."

He said building remnants showed there had been no "wall ties" on the remaining brickwork. "And if there are no ties connected to the blockwork then there was nothing to stop it simply folding away," he said.

Last night officials from the Health and Safety Executive, beginning their inquiries, were interviewing the site structural engineer, the architects, the contractors and the building workers. The HSE would make no comment on their investigation so far.