Heavy equipment removes rubble from the site of three collapsed buildings… (Ari Versiani / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Rio de Janeiro — Rescue workers in Brazil searched for survivors Thursday after three large buildings collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, killing at least four people and leaving 18 or more missing.
What caused the buildings, the tallest about 20 stories, to collapse about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday remained unknown, officials said.
"Probably there was a structural failure in the largest building … which led the other two buildings … to collapse as well," said Mayor Eduardo Paes.
Survivors said the buildings fell almost instantly, leaving little time to get away.
Alexandro da Silva Santos, a 31-year-old construction worker, said he was in an elevator that plummeted several floors in the tallest building but he was not injured. He said he used his cellphone to call for help.
"It was pure luck that I still had my cellphone with me," he said.
The three commercial buildings were just behind the Municipal Theater, one of Rio's most beloved buildings and one of downtown's main tourist attractions. Debris landed on the theater without causing structural damage.
Apart from playing a special role in Brazil's economic growth over the last decade, Rio is preparing to be a host city for the World Cup in 2014 and host of the Olympics in 2016. The city has been making major investments to improve infrastructure, transportation and safety for the events and has been criticized for being behind schedule. But the tragedy occurred in old buildings in the center, where less attention was thought necessary.
In the tallest building that collapsed, officials said, two construction projects were underway that were not registered as required.
"I can't say what caused the implosions," said Luiz Antonio Cosenza, head of the regional engineering council. "It could have been caused by some other irregular constructions that affected the girders or the columns. After the victims are rescued, I need to clean up the site for a better analysis of what happened."
Throughout Thursday, authorities kept much of the area blocked off. Dozens of friends and relatives of the missing waited for information from authorities.
For musician Walter Palma, who said he was in a nearby building that shook but did not fall, the scene was eerily familiar.
"It looked like the World Trade Center," he told O Globo newspaper. "I believe lots of people were buried there."
Bevins is a special correspondent.