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Roof Caves In on Crowd in Poland

Scores are feared trapped in the freezing cold at a Katowice trade hall, site of a popular fair. The 66 confirmed dead include children.

January 29, 2006|Ela Kasprzycka | Special to The Times

WARSAW — At least 66 people were killed and scores of others were feared trapped Saturday when the roof collapsed on a huge trade hall in the southern Polish city of Katowice, authorities said.

"At this moment, we can confirm 50 [identified] fatalities, and 16 people remain unidentified," said Tzeslaw Slowick of the government's crisis management center.

In a telephone interview from Katowice, he said 144 people were injured, of whom 123 remained in the hospital.

He said the exact number inside when the roof caved in was unknown.

Earlier, Krzysztof Mejer, spokesman for the local governor, told the TVN24 all-news station: "We have huge problems reaching the trapped under the roof. We are bringing rescue dogs to help us."

Mejer added: "We appeal to residents to donate blood."

Authorities at first said they feared that 100 to 700 people were trapped in freezing temperatures in the building, which was the site of an international carrier pigeon fair. Police said the collapse was probably caused by the weight of snow on the roof.

Poland has endured heavy snowfall and very low temperatures for more than a week. Evening temperatures in Katowice reached 5 degrees.

Hundreds of firefighters, police officers and mountain rescue teams were struggling to work in the freezing temperatures.

"The scale of the tragedy is great -- there could even be 700 people inside," Capt. Grzegorz Fischer, a police spokesman, said by phone from Katowice.

The mining area of Silesia, where Katowice is located, is accustomed to deaths in mining accidents. Even so, the collapse could prove especially tragic because of the number of children present. The fair is a longtime tradition and popular family outing in the area, where pigeon breeding is a common hobby.

Jerzy Kurtych, who exhibited pigeons at the fair, managed to escape but was desperately looking for his son.

"There was this loud noise, like an airplane, and then it all just collapsed," Kurtych told TVN24. "I was calling for my son, but there was no reply."

An unidentified woman, her head bandaged, was shown on television saying: "There was commotion and hysterics there -- it collapsed as though it was a house of cards. It all took seconds." She said she had managed to crawl out, but feared that one of her companions had died.

Hundreds of ambulances lined the streets around the site, ready to transport the injured to area hospitals.

Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz rushed to Katowice, about 160 miles southwest of Warsaw, to oversee the rescue effort.

The Seventh International Fair of Racing Pigeons was planned as a three-day event, and its website invited guests to visit "the largest exhibition in Poland" in "a luxurious pavilion." Exhibitors from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine and Poland were to take part.

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