Hopes fade for trapped Iran firefighters after high-rise collapse

Tehran (AFP) - Iranian officials said Friday they were losing hope of pulling any survivors from the rubble of a collapsed Tehran high-rise where around 20 firefighters were feared to have lost their lives.

Rescue workers, soldiers and sniffer dogs were still searching through the wreckage of the 15-storey Plasco building in downtown Tehran, which collapsed on Thursday after a four-hour blaze.

But smouldering fires and smoke were complicating the search, and no survivors or bodies had been found.

"It is very unlikely that we will pull anyone out alive from the rubble," the head of Tehran's crisis management centre, Esmail Najjar, told the ISNA news agency.

"Our goal is to recover the bodies of these martyrs without causing any damage," he added.

The government announced a national day of mourning on Saturday for the firefighters, with the cabinet releasing a statement "praising these great men of sacrifice".

Impromptu displays of solidarity and sadness appeared all over Tehran, with people leaving flowers outside fire stations and around the site of the collapsed building.

"I look at my daughter and wife and think of the families of the firefighters. The lump in my throat is suffocating me," read one of thousands of messages from shocked Iranians on Twitter.

The Plasco building was Iran's oldest high-rise and contained a shopping centre and hundreds of clothing suppliers.

"If the firefighters had not been there in time, if they had not searched inside to evacuate people, we would have had hundreds under the rubble instead of 20 firefighters," said brigade spokesman Jalal Maleki.

- One confirmed death -

The ISNA news agency said a total of 111 people were injured, of whom five were still in hospital.

One firefighter, who escaped the building before it collapsed, died in hospital on Friday from severe burns, it added.

The head of Iran's chamber of commerce, Ali Fazeli, said an initial estimate of 15,000 billion rials (roughly $500 million) had been put on the financial damage.

"Unfortunately, a considerable number of shops in this building were not insured," he added.

The clothing suppliers were particularly full of stock in the run-up to Nowruz, the Iranian new year, which falls in March.

Tehran police chief Ghader Karimi said rescue workers were pulling safes and other items out of the rubble, and these were being kept in a special store at the site to return to owners.

President Hassan Rouhani has called for an immediate investigation, with city officials saying the building's managers ignored repeated warnings about fire hazards.

The Plasco building was Tehran's first shopping centre and Iran's tallest building when it was finished in 1962, before being dwarfed by the construction boom of later years.

It was built by Habibollah Elghanian, a prominent Iranian-Jewish businessman who was arrested for alleged ties to Israel and executed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.