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Moment that mattered: The Zolitūde tragedy

Rescue workers search debris of the Maxima supermarket in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Scores of people have died, including three firefighters, after an enormous section of roof collapsed at a Latvian supermarket in the country's capital, emergency medical officials said Friday. The roof fell Thursday evening in the Latvian capital of Riga as customers were doing after-work shopping. Preliminary reports indicate the roof caved in due to either faulty construction or building activities on the roof, where workers were creating a garden area and children's playground for a new high-rise residential building adjacent to the supermarket. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

“I was doing an interview on Radio Latvia when I first heard about the roof collapsing at the Maxima supermarket in Zolitu-de, a neighbourhood of western Riga. We didn’t know anything about fatalities at that stage. It was late afternoon and a large crowd began to gather at the site of the shop. Many phone calls were made around Latvia that evening and many breathed a sigh of relief when they realised their loved ones were safe, but for those affected it was a terrible tragedy, especially for the children who lost parents. A total of 54 people were killed, including three rescue workers.

There wasn’t any particular anger towards the company or towards Lithuania [Maxima is a Lithuanian chain] until the head of the company [Gintaras Jasinskas, chairman of Maxima Latvia] said he didn’t feel any sense of responsibility. That led to an enormous amount of anger. The store was renting space in the building so to an extent he has a point, but it was still a stupid thing to say. Initially there was talk of a boycott but I can’t see any evidence that the stores are any quieter now. They are low-cost supermarkets and in a poor country like Latvia if you can get your potatoes for five cents less at Maxima, you’ll go there for your potatoes.

What has happened, however, is that there’s now more scrutiny of the type of buildings such stores occupy. This particular building was fully inspected and accepted by the authorities before it could be used as a store. But apparently they didn’t look at the ongoing construction of a roof garden, and an apartment erected next door may have shaken the foundations. The most disgraceful thing is that the alarm system went off a couple of times before the building began to collapse; afterwards we heard the alarm had been acting up for a couple of days and they just ignored it, which begs the question – why is there a security system in the first place? If it’s a modern system it can detect a change in its own environment. So there was certainly negligence on the part of staff.

The Latvian president, Andris Berzins, used the word ‘murder’ in the aftermath, which I thought was fairly outrageous populism. That suggests it was done on purpose, but of course it wasn’t. When the prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned it came as a surprise, especially since he’d been interviewed that morning and didn’t even hint at it. But after the interview he met the president and we don’t know what they discussed but later that day he said that he accepted responsibility for the collapse and would resign. I don’t believe that he resigned purely because of the incident. I suspect he was sick and tired of dealing with the coalition, and he knew that he’s likely to have a good career in European politics coming up.

He shouldn’t have resigned. In my opinion if anybody should have resigned it should have been the mayor of Riga, Nils Ušakovs. Most Latvians were fairly apathetic about Dombrovskis resigning – we’re not a very politically engaged country. Latvians have been lied to so often they’ve switched off.

The new government has stated that one of its top priorities is to investigate the Zolitu-de tragedy, although I believe it needs to focus on the future not the past. Of course it’s important to establish what happened and tighten up standards, although this may not happen quickly. Riga Castle was damaged by a fire in June 2013 and we still don’t know what happened. In Latvia these things don’t move at speed.”

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