Building collapse, blasts spark worries about Rio

By Jenny Barchfield

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Workers repave the plaza in front of the "Arcos da Lapa," an aqueduct converted into a trolley bridge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday Feb. 1, 2012. In the past year, a trolley car ran off the arches' rails, killing five and injuring dozens and a French tourist fell to his death while riding the same car because of a hole in a security fence along the track's edge. These accidents are contributing to a growing concern about Rio de Janeiro's readiness to host the finals of the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics.

Silvia Izquierdo, Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — Enormous buildings suddenly collapse in this seaside Olympic city's center, killing 17. A manhole explodes near Copacabana Beach, severely burning a pair of American tourists.

Another explosion rips through a downtown restaurant, blasting the bodies of three workers clear across the street. A trolley car that's a favorite attraction for visitors runs off its rails, killing five and injuring dozens. A French tourist falls to his death while riding the same line because of a hole in a security fence along the track's edge.

These accidents from the past year haven't just highlighted everyday dangers for Rio's 6 million residents. They are contributing to a growing concern about Rio de Janeiro's readiness to host the finals of the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympics.

Rio's Mayor Eduardo Paes argues that last week's unexplained building collapse and other infrastructure woes are not directly related to preparations for the World Cup or the Olympics because none of the accidents occurred at the sites planned for either event.

But critics say the repeated deadly accidents in the heart of the city point to larger problems: decades of neglect and almost nonexistent urban planning, lax oversight and institutionalized corruption, that could spell disaster at the World Cup or Olympics.

With its sprawling sandy beaches, palm tree-lined streets and rocky outcroppings covered with lush, tropical vegetation, Rio is a picture postcard of a city. But scratch the surface and it soon becomes apparent that the decay here runs deep, and extends far beyond the infamous hillside slums, or "favelas."

Aging natural gas pipelines crisscross the subterranean network of electricity lines, a dangerously combustible mix thought to explain a rash of exploding manholes in the past year, with the latest blowout coming this week.

Even moderate rains, and Rio is a city of immense downpours, suffice to turn many thoroughfares into rushing rivers, including the area around iconic Maracana stadium, the jewel in the 2014 World Cup crown and venue for the opening of the Olympics.

If that weren't enough, Rio is also dotted with more than 1,500 abandoned buildings, many of them in advanced states of disrepair, according to a recent report in Veja newsweekly, citing city authorities.

Last Wednesday's dramatic disintegration of a 20-story office building added to the doubts about Rio's capacity to play host to world-class events, with photos of the wreckage splashed across newspapers and websites the world over. Seventeen bodies have been retrieved and three people are still missing, but casualties could have numbered in the hundreds had the building fallen during the workday instead of at night.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the collapse, which also pulled down two neighboring buildings, but officials have pointed to illegal construction inside the structure as the likely culprit.

"You can't imagine this happening in the financial center of New York or Paris or even Beijing," said Christopher Gaffney, an American academic who's a visiting professor at the graduate school of architecture and urban planning at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio's sister city, Niteroi. His research focuses on preparations for the World Cup and Olympics.

"In Rio, structural engineering is not the problem," Gaffney said. "The problem is management of the city ... It's a totally unregulated system, which leads to problems" such as the exploding manholes, derailing streetcars and collapsing buildings.

Rio authorities' laissez-faire attitude dates back hundreds of years to colonial days and is in part a legacy of the Portuguese settlers' penchant for bureaucracy, Gaffney said. The civil codes here are so thick with regulations that it would be almost impossible for construction companies to follow them to the letter, so in practice virtually no one pays them heed at all.

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