Vision of death that Cairo views through Ray-Bans

At least 80 feared dead as modern 12-storey building collapses in wealthy district of Egyptian capital

Robert Fisk
Tuesday 29 October 1996 00:02

The shock was identifiably middle-class, the eyes hidden behind Ray-Bans or staring through the windows of the Mercedes limousines parked by the civil defence lorries. Outside the boutiques of Heliopolis - the City of the Sun - the young women in designer scarves just stared at the hundreds of tons of pancaked concrete. There were no shrieks of "Allahu Akbar", none of the open grief of Cairo's poor. This time, the catastrophe had struck Egypt's rich, scarcely 500 yards from President Hosni Mubarak's private home. At least 80, it seemed, had been crushed to death amid the slabs of masonry, reinforcement bars and smashed furniture.

Exactly what happened to the 12-storey building in Abdullah el-Nour Street on Sunday night is still unclear. When it collapsed, neighbours heard an explosion and were blinded by dust clouds that swept through the neighbouring blocks. Some blamed interior alterations; others, including the Prime Minister, Kamal Ganzouri, were told that some pillars were being replaced. All that Ahmed Mohamed who lives across the road, remembers seeing were men and women hurling themselves off their balconies as the doomed building cracked apart.

In the slums of Beaulac and Shoubra, such disasters are commonplace. But Heliopolis is the sanctuary of Cairo's business elite, whose apartments were built scarcely 20 years ago, in the laissez-faire months of President Anwar Sadat's false economic boom. Could it be that safety standards were skimped back then, as blithely as the slum landlords ignore their own seedy, tottering mansions today?

For these victims were men of wealth and power. Inside the wreckage lay the wife and four children of Lutfi Moussa, one of Saudi Arabia's embassy staff, along with a rich Palestinian and a host of Egyptian business families. The great and the good arrived to express their horror. There was Dr Ganzouri, the defence minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the interior minister, Hassan al-Alfi, the health minister, Ismael Sallam and Cairo's governor, Omar Abdul Akher. Men of such importance rarely gather when similar catastrophes strike the slums.

Dr Ganzouri announced the appointment of the inevitable "technical" committee to discover the cause of the disaster while the usual suspects were arrested for questioning: a local building contractor, the consulting engineer, the owner of the block. Only hours after the disaster was it discovered that workmen had been smashing down the first floor interior walls last week, in preparation for the opening of a bank.

The government did what it could. There were first-aid crews, six cranes, sniffer dogs and soldiers with breathing apparatus and at least 100 riot police to keep the mobs at bay. But of course, there were no mobs in Heliopolis, just visitors to the nearby Heliopolis Club and a thin trail of relatives who came to gaze at cardboard-thin objects under the shrouds which the civil defence men were pushing into their ambulances. By last night, they had rescued 21 people and found 15 bodies.

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