ACCRA, Ghana — Rescuers combed through the rubble of a collapsed six-story mall in Ghana on Thursday in an urgent search for survivors as the death toll climbed to at least nine and with 69 people so far rescued.
An 18-person search team from Israel was due in the west African nation later on Thursday to help with the rescue effort as Ghanaian authorities used concrete cutters, a crane, and other equipment to clear away debris.
It was not clear how many people were inside the building when it collapsed ahead of opening time on Wednesday morning. Police had initially said around 50 employees worked there, but the number of people located has far exceeded that.
An official probing the collapse said the building, which opened early this year, lacked a permit and cited structural failure as the cause, adding that the concrete mix used did not appear up to standards.
“They didn’t have a permit, which means that AMA (Accra Municipal Authority) may not have assigned a building inspector,” said Magnus Quarshie, vice president of the Ghana Institution of Engineering. “From the inspection we have had, we can see it’s a structural failure. We can tell the concrete mix was not to the specifications we require.”
Dan Mishio, director general of operations in the Ghana military, said nine people had been so far confirmed dead in the rubble of the Melcom shopping center. A military statement spoke of 69 people rescued alive.
Melcom says it only rented the building.
President John Dramani Mahama has suspended his campaign for the December 7 presidential and parliamentary elections and ordered a probe into the collapse.
The collapse had sparked desperate rescue attempts on Wednesday, with construction workers from a nearby site rushing over to join the search and Ghanaian authorities carefully picking through the rubble.
Several thousand people had gathered at the scene on Wednesday, including family members desperately trying to reach relatives by phone and crying out in agony.
One man who reached someone trapped inside said he had spoken of needing water as the west African heat bore down.
“They are suffering,” Stephen Ansah, a Melcom employee from another branch, said at the site on Wednesday. “The heat is too much.”
A crowd also gathered at the site on Thursday, though there were fewer people than the previous day. Officials pledged to continue searching until everyone was accounted for.
“We will continue to work until the last person is retrieved,” said Alfred Oko Vanderpuije, minister for greater Accra. “With the increasing number of people being rescued, it is likely there are still people beneath the rubble which we have to save.”
Mahama called the incident “a tragedy for Ghana” and vowed that an investigation would determine what went wrong.
“I decided to call off my campaign to come and have first-hand information about the incident,” he said when visiting the site on Wednesday.
“A committee will be set up to investigate the cause of the accident, and whoever is found culpable will be dealt with,” Mahama said.
The Melcom Group of Companies, based in Ghana, includes extensive retail outlets, according to its website.
Ghana, a country of some 20 million people, is a major producer of gold and cocoa which began significant oil production in 2010.
It is viewed as a success story in often turbulent west Africa and a rare example of a relatively stable democracy in the region.
© AFP 2013