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Collapse of Brazil church roof kills 9

Dozens are injured in the Sao Paulo building owned by Renascer, one of Brazil's fastest-growing evangelical sects. Officials look at the weight of air-conditioning ducts as a possible cause.

January 20, 2009|Marcelo Soares and Chris Kraul

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Fire department officials in Sao Paulo sorted through tons of debris Monday as they tried to determine what caused the roof of an evangelical church packed with worshipers to collapse just as evening service ended, and the toll in the disaster climbed to nine dead and 113 injured.

Inspectors theorized that the Sunday collapse of the building owned by Renascer, one of Brazil's fastest-growing evangelical sects, may have been caused by the weight of air-conditioning ducts.

Rescue officials worked late into Sunday night pulling victims from the ruins of the neo-Pentecostal church, a converted movie theater built in the 1950s in the middle-class Cambuci neighborhood. All of those killed were women.

The collapse occurred as 600 people were filing out of a service that included a videoconference address from church founders in the United States. Without warning, tons of roofing material fell on top of the assemblage.

Renascer, or Reborn in Christ Church, has employed a musical format, celebrities and an eclectic approach -- including the use of staff on roller skates -- to attract an estimated 1 million followers since its founding in 1986. Brazilian soccer star Kaka was married in the church three years ago.

The church has also been plagued by scandal. Husband and wife founders Estevam and Sonia Hernandes, now living in the U.S., have been charged by Brazilian officials in connection with alleged fraud and money laundering.

Cassia Novakoski, 17, told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper that the scene inside resembled an enormous Styrofoam plate breaking up. Said Priscila Alves, 30: "No one heard anything. All of a sudden everything fell. There was no time to do anything."

Aerial news videos of the church show twisted metal supports and the entire roof of the 250,000-square-foot church caved in, with adjoining houses damaged by falling debris.

Patricia Madi Farelli, 19, told Globo television that she and her mother arrived late to the service after a stop for coffee. As she stepped from her car, she heard a noise that sounded like a "hurricane."

"The dust came up. I wanted to go in and help people, but my mother wouldn't let me," said Farelli, who on Monday passed leaflets asking for blood donations. "God saved us. Maybe with a cup of coffee."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

Soares is a special correspondent.

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