Rescue teams frantically dug through rubble Thursday for 16 people missing after three office buildings collapsed in the historic heart of Rio, killing at least five people and injuring six, officials said.
The collapse, apparently caused by structural problems, occurred late Wednesday near the municipal theater on the city's Cinelandia square, in a historic district bustling by day but nearly deserted at night.
Civil defense official Marcio Mota told Agence France Presse that two new bodies were located in the debris, bringing the known death toll to five.
"Our priority is to retrieve the bodies as well as possible survivors, even though that appears unlikely," Mota said.
Officials in Brazil's second largest city said six people were hurt, including a woman who sustained head injuries and required surgery.
This latest mishap raised fresh questions about the state of Brazil's infrastructure as Latin America's dominant economic power prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
The country has had its share of disasters in recent months, including explosions caused by gas leaks, fatal accidents in poorly maintained amusement parks or in packed streetcars with faulty breaks.
Witnesses of the collapse reported hearing an explosion and described scenes reminiscent of September 11, 2001, with walls of dust and debris.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said the cause was not yet known, but that it was likely "structural problems" that led to the fall of a 20-story building, a 10-story building and a smaller edifice of three or four floors.
Health Secretary Sousa Aguiar said the office buildings would have been largely deserted during the night-time collapse.
The race was on to locate and rescue possible survivors.
"We believe that it's possible to find people in spaces where there is air," said Julio Cesar Mafia, a military police officer. "We are taking great care to avoid further collapses."
Civil defense teams inspected nearby buildings, including a nine-story structure on an adjacent street that was evacuated as a precaution.
Police spokesman Rodrigo Pimentel told reporters that "illegal" work had been taking place in the tallest high-rise.
"This may have affected the structure of the building. Construction material was also stored inside and this could have caused a breakup of the structure," he added.
"The breakup occurred suddenly, without early sign of cracks."
Allesandro da Silva Fonseca, who was briefly trapped in an elevator while he tried to escape with four other construction workers, said he almost suffocated from the dust.
"I was out of air. I could not breathe," he told AFP by mobile phone. All five workers later managed to escape.
Relatives of the missing anxiously waited for news.
Vera de Anjo Freitas desperately enquired about her cousin Moises Morais Silva, who was with her in the street soon before the collapse.
"I asked him if he wanted to send something home and he told me: 'Yes, wait. I am just going to get my bag.'"
"I felt something like a rock falling on my head and I ran away," the 57-year-old maid said.
Her cousin and his four work colleagues "were right in front of the building," she said, holding back her tears. "I don't think they are alive."
A mountain of rubble filled the street, and thick dust covered nearby cars. The tallest building had housed several law offices, and construction work was being carried out on two separate floors.
Brazilian authorities are racing to build or renovate 12 stadiums around the country in time for the 2014 World Cup, one of the world's premier sporting events.
Last month football's ruling body FIFA warned Brazil about delays in the progress of construction projects expected to be ready for the four-yearly extravaganza.
The Getulio Vargas Foundation and consultancy Ernst & Young have said Brazil needs more than $11 billion in investment to fix roads, boost hotel capacity, reinforce security and develop its telecom network ahead of the World Cup.
Brazil hopes the events will showcase its rising power. The Latin American giant surpassed Britain as the world's sixth largest economy last year, but its standard of living lags behind that of the United States and Europe.
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