Five builders feared trapped after collapse

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The Independent Online

Up to five building workers were feared trapped on Friday night under the wreckage of a block of flats which collapsed without warning during renovation work, injuring four others.

Up to five building workers were feared trapped on Friday night under the wreckage of a block of flats which collapsed without warning during renovation work, injuring four others.

Firefighters equipped with listening devices were scouring tons of rubble for the missing men, all of Turkish origin, in the unstable remains of the four flats and two shops in White Hart Lane, close to the ground of Tottenham Hotspur football club, in north London.

The structure, which had been undergoing a refurbishment of a ground-level off-licence and grocery store, folded in on itself shortly after 8.30 yesterday morning, wrecking three floors in seconds and covering the street in masonry.

Emergency workers said they believed between one and five of the workers, who had been removing a supporting wall to knock the shops together, were trapped as the building – numbers 76 to 78 – came down.

Residents in the flats above found themselves staring into open air as the entire front wall and the roof of the block fell away. A family living room and a bedroom scattered with women's clothing provided a chilling reminder of the lives which could have been lost.

One young family had a lucky escape as the 1920s building collapsed before their eyes, leaving them shocked with slight cuts and bruises. The 30-year-old man, his wife, in her mid-twenties, and their 18-month-old daughter were rescued by firefighters using a hydraulic platform.

A 23-year-old woman visiting a friend in an adjoining flat suffered serious cuts and bruising as masonry fell around her. All four were taken to North Middlesex Hospital.

The remaining residents of the four flats, initially feared dead, were all found to be safe and well elsewhere.

But there were increasing fears for the group of Turkish builders who had been knocking the shops together, work which began two days before.

One builder, who had just been let into the shops by the father of the owner, Ulas Aksu, walked into a back room to change his clothes when the front section disintegrated. He told rescue workers that five men had been working in the shop, although it was unclear just how many had been inside the store at the time of the collapse.

Mr Aksu's brother Ismail, 19, said: "They had put metal sticks up to support the shop. They had been working only a few days. We are all very shocked."

Construction supervisors for Haringey Council confirmed that planning permission had been granted for the project to refurbish the shops, including the demolition of a wall separating the two properties.

Robert McIver, head of building control at the council, said: "We visited earlier this week. No work was under way then but they have done some work in the last couple of days. We don't know quite what they had done. It could be due to building work or it could be bad luck."

He added: "You usually see this sort of thing after a bomb or gas explosion but it seems it could be due to building work."

Three inspectors and engineering experts from the Health and Safety Executive were at the site, initially to ensure its safety ahead of an investigation. Jan Kemal, a spokesman for the HSE, said there could be prosecutions if it was felt that any building regulations had been broken.

Firefighters, using sound and vibration equipment as well as an experimental "snake-eye" video probe, currently being tried out by London Fire Brigade, searched through the building stopping at points when it was feared it was too unsafe to continue.

By early evening, an eerie silence had descended upon the hundreds of people gathered around the scene as about 40 rescuers listened for any sound of human life. Firefighters tried calling the mobile phone of a builder they believe may be under the rubble. They managed to locate the phone at the back of the house but no trace of its owner.

Senior divisional officer John Anthony said: "We could be searching for some time. The site is believed to be extremely precarious. That is why we are taking it very carefully."

He explained that running water and shifting rubble were making it very difficult to hear any sound of survivors.