Polish roof collapse kills at least 66

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The Independent Online

Rescuers searched in bitter cold Sunday for victims buried when the roof of an exhibition hall in southern Poland collapsed on a racing pigeon show, killing at least 66 people and injuring 160.

The death toll rose steadily early Sunday as rescuers dug through the debris of the building, which collapsed at around 5:30 p.m. (1630GMT) Saturday in the city of Katowice.

Tadeusz Dlugosz was dragged out of the twisted wreckage of the building, only to find out his 26-year-old son, who had been visiting another exhibit when the hall roof collapsed, had been killed.

Sunday morning he remained at the site of the tragedy, trying to find out where his son's body had been taken.

"It was his idea to come to the fair ... and he found his grave there," Dlugosz said. "I don't know which morgue he's in. I would like to see him and take him as quickly as possible."

At least 66 people were killed, said Janusz Skulich, head of the Silesia region fire brigade. Among the dead were a police officer who was providing security for the exhibition, said police spokesman Janusz Jonczyk, adding that there were at least 160 people injured.

Skulich said one body — included in his count of people killed — was still known to be in the building but other than that individual, "the probability that there are still victims in there is very, very small," Skulich said.

People who escaped said two emergency exits were open, but other exits were locked, leaving others trapped.

Witness Franciszek Kowal, who got out onto a terrace and jumped about four meters (13 feet) to safety, saw people struggling to break windows to escape.

"Luckily nothing happened to me, but I saw a macabre scene, as people tried to break windows in order to get out," Kowal told The Associated Press. "People were hitting the panes with chairs, but the windows were unbreakable. One of the panes finally broke, and they started to get out by the window."

Attorney Grzegorz Slyszyk, who represents the company that owns the building, said he had no immediate information on the reports but that if exits were locked, the reason why would be investigated.

The hopes of finding survivors faded early Sunday after no one had been found alive since 10 p.m. (2100GMT) Saturday in minus 17 C (1 F) cold, and crews who had been using only hand tools to pick through the wreckage were preparing to step up the operation.

"Officials are at the scene now to see if heavy equipment can be brought in," said Krzysztof Mejer, a spokesman for the government of the Silesia region.

Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz joined several thousand others packing Katowice's Cathedral of Christ the King on Sunday morning for a special mass being celebrated by Archbishop Damian Zimon for the victims of the tragedy.

Up to 500 people were in the exhibition center on Saturday when the roof fell in. People trapped in the wreckage used cell phones to call relatives or emergency services and tell them where they were.

Crumpled birdcages were scattered inside the building near the entrance, and dozens of white and brown pigeons perched on the twisted rafters, their feathers ruffled against the cold.

An unidentified woman with bandages around her head, a bloodied chin and scrapes on her face told TVN24 from her hospital bed that she feared one of her friends was dead.

"I heard a snap like breaking matches as the roof fell on everybody. Then I heard an unbelievable scream, and then I tried to escape like everybody else," she said.

"Something fell on me, I turned around, somebody stepped on me, but on my knees I was able to get out," she added. "I still don't know where some of my friends are and I haven't had any contact with them — most likely one of them is dead."

Police said snow caused the roof to collapse, but Slyszyk, the attorney for building management disputed that, saying snow had been regularly removed and that it was too early to speculate on a cause.

Some 1,300 firefighters, police officers and mine rescue workers from around the region were brought in to help.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz flew in by helicopter and spent about 15 minutes looking over the site with rescue crews.

The 10,000-square-meter (110,000 square-foot) hall in the Bytkow district of the city had been hosting the exhibition, which opened Friday.

The "Pigeon 2006" fair was made up of more than 120 exhibitors, including groups from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine and Poland, according to the fair's Web site. The gathering was devoted to pigeon racing, a sport in which homing pigeons are released and race home using their sharp sense of direction.

Katowice, some 300 kilometers (200 miles) south of Warsaw in a mining region, has been hit with the same heavy snow this winter that has been plaguing much of eastern and central Europe.

On Friday, snow caused a town hall's roof to collapse in the southern Austrian town of Mariazell, though no injuries were reported.

On Jan. 2, the snow-covered roof of a skating rink collapsed, killing 15 people, including 12 children in the German Alpine spa town of Bad Reichenhall.