CAIRO — A shoddy seven-story building collapsed early Tuesday morning in a populous eastern Cairo district, killing at least 17 people while several others are feared to have perished under the rubble.
Eight residents of the building in the Matariya district were pulled out alive; among the survivors, the son of the building owner who, witnesses say, jumped off a balcony. Others who remain trapped in the rubble are using cellphones to call their neighbors, pleading for rescue.
Bulldozers rolled into the narrow alley leading to the collapsed building, removing large chunks of cement, mingled with clothes, blood-stained bed sheets and twisted steel rods. Rescue workers and neighborhood volunteers dug through the rubble with their hands, searching for survivors. Neighbors said workers were looking for mattresses, knowing most residents were asleep at 1 a.m. when the collapse took place.
Officials and neighbors said that the building owner defied a court ruling issued five years ago and illegally built several extra floors atop the original four-story structure.
Ali Abdel-Fattah Ali, a government employee who moonlights in a nearby car repair shop, said he was inside the shop with his back to the building when it began to suddenly collapse.
"I didn't even have the chance to turn. We heard clacking, then it fell apart all of the sudden. A strong wave of air and dust engulfed all of us," said a tearful Ali, with white dust covering his face and hair. He pointed at several cars waiting for repair, now smashed under chunks of cement and steel beams.
"A man with his daughter was calling me saying they are trapped in darkness. He said he sees nothing. I tried to call back but there was no answer. I don't know what happened. His phone is still ringing," he said.
Building collapses are common in Egypt, where shoddy construction is widespread in shantytowns, impoverished neighborhoods and rural areas. With a housing shortage and lax government oversight, developers seeking bigger profits frequently build without authorization or permits.
But the Matariya building collapse appeared to be avoidable. Neighbors said they won a court order to remove the illegal floors but local authorities — either out of negligence or complicity — failed to execute the ruling. The owner of the building died about six months ago, neighbors said.
Relatives of some of the victims said they saw cracks in walls and feared the building would eventually collapse. Men from the district gave reporters a list of area buildings with clear cracks in the exterior; they say have filed complaints to the local municipality to avert other disasters.
Abeer Ismail, 25, was at the scene calling out the name of her mother-in-law, who lived on the second floor. Ismail said she had last visited the building on Sunday and could tell it was unsafe.
"You could see the steel rods popping out of the walls and cracks covered the walls," she said.