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DISPATCH FROM RIO DE JANEIRO

Taking the Fall for Crumbling Facades

A rash of plunging objects, from file cabinet drawers to architectural elements, has created a new hazard for this city's pedestrians.

June 21, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — If Chicken Little lived here instead of in the world of fables, she'd really have something to cry about.

Not that this city's gorgeous blue skies are actually falling. But enough things have crashed to earth that residents, already nervous about stratospheric crime rates, may do well to watch out for additional hazards overhead.

In the last two years, an unusual number of objects have plummeted onto the streets of Rio from great heights, injuring pedestrians, damaging property and stopping traffic below.

Entire chunks of buildings have come tumbling down. Heavy tools have been dropped by construction workers and repairmen. An air conditioner 18 floors high recently decided to part company with the edifice to which it was attached, shattering on the pavement. In another mysterious incident, a 20-pound drawer from a metal filing cabinet managed to find its way out of an open window, perhaps given the heave-ho by an especially angry -- and fit -- secretary.

Fortunately, no one on the ground was struck by the latter object. But that was probably just dumb luck, engineer Luis Andre Moreira said.

"A person in the middle of the street doesn't go around looking up," said Moreira, who works at the municipal emergency services department. "In the case of the filing cabinet, who could imagine that it would fall from a window?"

Several of the accidents have occurred in downtown Rio, a noisy, densely packed hub of humankind, where plunging objects are especially likely to hit someone.

Many of the city's oldest buildings, beautiful but dilapidated specimens of colonial architecture, are downtown, interspersed among the newer high-rises.

Upkeep of the aging structures, most of them made of stone or brick, is often slapdash or nonexistent because their owners have no interest in maintaining buildings whose commercial use is restricted by preservation ordinances.

Decades of exposure to sea air, rain and sun have left the historic landmarks in precarious condition. "These old buildings present the most problems, buildings more than 40 or 50 years old, which have antique veneers and wooden window shutters that are starting to fall off," Moreira said.

But modern office blocks aren't necessarily safe either. Two years ago, six granite panels dislodged from the 37th floor of a skyscraper and landed explosively on Avenida Rio Branco, one of downtown's main arteries. Nine people were injured and six cars damaged.

In December, the Regional Council of Engineering, Architecture and Agronomy, a professional association, delivered a report to local authorities identifying 500 poorly maintained buildings in Rio de Janeiro state that it said posed potential threats to passersby.

Most of the structures cited were in the city of Rio, with the majority of these along the historic corridor downtown. The report warned of building appendages or parts of exteriors in danger of falling.

The council urged officials to recognize the, well, gravity of the situation, and to mandate regular inspections.

"These are buildings with imminent risks to the public," said Reynaldo Barros, the association's president. "Public safety is the obligation of the state."

The government's response to the report so far? "None," Barros said.

Building safety ranks low on the list of priorities for officials eager to be seen tackling Rio's higher-profile problems, such as spiraling crime, Barros said. "The politicians are always looking ahead to the next election," he complained.

Not even another close shave for a pedestrian a few months ago was enough to galvanize the city into action. On March 2, a marble panel broke away from the 14th floor of an office building, narrowly missing insurance salesman George dos Santos Almeida before hitting the sidewalk. Flying shards tore through Almeida's pants, cutting into his left leg.

"The building paid a fine of 170 reals" -- about $55 -- "to continue functioning," Almeida, 43, said. "So is my life worth only 170 reals?"

He has sued the property owners for negligence, but in Rio's Byzantine judicial system, it's doubtful that a court hearing will take place any time soon.

"There's crazy traffic, the danger of stray bullets, robberies -- and now the risk of masonry falling from a building," Almeida said.

"Rio de Janeiro is very dangerous.... You have to count on divine protection."

At least he lived to tell the tale. Not so an unfortunate victim in 1992 who was killed when a bulky building overhang -- itself designed to protect pedestrians from plunging hazards -- collapsed. That death was the most recent fatality of its kind on record in Rio, engineer Moreira said.

Other objects reported to have taken dives in the last two years include a wrench from 21 floors up, an iron bar from scaffolding around an office building, and three sledgehammers.

A critically acclaimed film now in theaters continues the trend.

In "The Other Side of the Street," a Hitchcockian thriller, Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro stars as a retiree who spies on her neighbors through binoculars, gazing out at night from her high-rise in Copacabana. She believes she has witnessed a murder. Later, when the suspect comes up to her apartment, he finds the glasses and realizes that he's been watched.

Disgusted, he chucks the binoculars out the window.

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