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November 20, 2018

New demolitions halt search in deadly French building collapse

New demolitions halt search in deadly French building collapse
'Two buildings suddenly crumbled in Marseille on Monday, killing at least six people' - By: AFP GERARD JULIEN

Pressure grew on Marseille's mayor and other officials Thursday, accused of ignoring warnings about unsafe housing as a seventh body was pulled from rubble after a deadly building collapse in the southern French port city.

The bodies of five men and two women have so far been recovered from the mound of rubble where two buildings suddenly crumbled on Monday. Authorities believe one person might still be trapped.

Rescue workers are being forced to work slowly because the collapse destabilised other buildings along the Rue d'Aubagne.

The search resumed Thursday afternoon after it was halted Wednesday so two other buildings could be pulled down.

Chances of finding any survivors "are thin, very thin, but real," said Charles-Henri Garie, who commands the water brigades of the port city's fire department.

Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin defended his administration's efforts to deal with thousands of dilapidated lodgings in the city, while calling for parliament to make it easier to compel private owners to undertake necessary maintenance or make improvements.

Citing "terribly long, complex and costly procedures" for renovating or demolishing squalid buildings, Gaudin said "some people are taking advantage of this in opposition to society's interests."

But he told a news conference he would not heed calls to resign, saying 35 million euros ($40 million) had been spent demolishing or renovating social housing blocks since 2005.

"Do you think a ship captain quits during a storm?" he asked.

- Furious residents -

Furious residents along the Rue d'Aubagne, dozens of whom have been evacuated from their homes, have accused city authorities of neglecting the safety risks at the derelict buildings despite years of complaints.

"Gaudin, Fructus, murderers!" a crowd of around 100 protestors yelled at the site on Wednesday evening, referring to the mayor's deputy in charge of housing, Arlette Fructus.

The mayor's deputy for risk prevention, Julien Ruas, said Thursday that 51 complaints were made on Wednesday alone, leading to 37 checks on buildings and four evacuations.

A silent march has been called for Saturday in Noailles, the working-class neighbourhood where the incident occurred.

It remains unclear what caused the two houses built in the late 18th century to collapse, though city officials point to heavy rains the night before.

Marseille prosecutor Xavier Tarabeux said a resident in one of the apartments had called firefighters the night before the disaster to warn that a crack in the wall had widened, only to call back later to say they were not required after all.

The other building had been condemned and boarded up, but residents told AFP the building was often squatted in by homeless people or sellers of black-market cigarettes.

City officials said building experts inspected the occupied building on October 18 and shoring up work was carried out before residents were allowed back in.

A 2015 government report said about 100,000 Marseille residents were living in housing that was dangerous.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said this week that 6,000 properties have been identified as "at risk" in the city, representing some 44,000 lodgings, mainly in lower-class neighbourhoods.

"It's unthinkable that such things happen in our time," said Christian Gouverneur, who owns a flat across the road from the collapsed buildings.

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