30 Firefighters Dead in Tehran’s Commercial Building Fire, Collapse

30 Firefighters Dead in Tehran’s Commercial Building Fire, Collapse

Iranian rescue teams and dozens of trucks worked through the night searching the ruins trying to reach trapped firefighters and other victims a day after a historic high-rise building in the heart of Tehran caught fire and later collapsed, killing at least 30 firefighters and injuring more than 80 people.

The fire broke out at about 8 a.m. local time Thursday in the 17-story Plasco building, housing more than 500 garment and clothing workshops, when many of its workers had not yet arrived at the site. The cause of the fire was not yet clear.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said since the fire broke out, all necessary measures had been taken for security and safety of the German, Turkish and British embassies in the neighborhood. No damages were reported at those diplomatic compounds.

The semi-official Mehr news agency said President Hassan Rouhani ordered his interior minister to “immediately investigate the causes of the accident, identify those responsible, take care of the injured and quickly compensate people for their losses.”

A fire broke out in the 17-story Plasco building, which opened in 1962 as the Iranian capital’s first high-rise tower, about 8 a.m. local time Thursday, when many of its workers had not yet arrived at the site. Iranian media said the fire spread quickly through the building, which housed hundreds of clothing and garment manufacturers and highly flammable textiles.

Many firefighters feared lost

The building collapsed three hours later, in images broadcast live on Iranian television.

Authorities said they feared dozens of firefighters were in the building at the time, along with an unknown number of business owners who had rushed into the burning building to retrieve their valuables.

Another semiofficial news agency, Fars, quoted a Tehran emergency services spokesman as saying about 70 people had been injured, including firefighters. The cause of the fire was not clear.

Mehr quoted Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as expressing deep sorrow for the collapse and saying “all efforts should focus on saving the firefighters trapped in the site.” He added, “Finding causes and possible contributing factors is only a second priority.”

Building designed to house offices

The Plasco building was located in central Tehran near the capital’s sprawling bazaar and British embassy. It was built by Habibollah Elghanian, a prominent Jewish-Iranian businessman who was arrested on charges of being an Israeli spy and executed in 1979 during the Islamic revolution.

The building originally was designed to house offices.

VOA Persian service executive editor Mohammad Manzarpour, who visited Plasco in the late 1990s, said its configuration changed after the Islamic Revolution, when a charitable foundation under direct control of Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control of the site. He said Bonyad Mostazafan, or the Foundation for the Oppressed, rented out office space to the textile manufacturers and prevented the Tehran municipality from enforcing any safety regulations.

“I visited the building because my cousin had a T-shirt production line there,” Manzarpour said. “It was horrific — the corridors were damaged and dark because the lighting was gone, huge parts of ceilings and walls were missing, and emergency exits were stacked with manufacturers’ boxes.”

Manzarpour, who previously worked as a journalist in Tehran, said the foundation did nothing when the municipality threatened to take it to court for ignoring warnings about safety at Plasco.

Soroush Farzin-Moghadam, an engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, told VOA Persian’s Newshour program that Iranian authorities typically attempt to update building codes when a disaster happens.

“But there’s a double standard when it comes to implementation,” said Farzin-Moghadam, who studied architecture and building technology in Tehran and has worked on residential complexes and airports. “When Iranian regulations do not deal with life and death issues, they are implemented completely, whereas when regulations do impact people’s lives, they are ignored,” he said.