Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The entire world took note this past week that three large office buildings in downtown Rio, right across from the recently renovated Theatro Municipal, collapsed into a heap of rubble, as if they’d been imploded. A score of people have been killed, some few are still missing and presumed dead. How could this happen? Because of a lapse.

Michael Royster
The Curmudgeon, also known as Michael Royster.

Gas and sewer explosions, some fatal, have been all the rage in Rio recently, so the first presumed villain was an exploding gas line. However, not a single bystander could remember hearing any explosion, all the manhole covers in the area were still intact, and there was no smell of gas anywhere near the wreckage.

People did remember, though, that both the third and the ninth floor had been gutted and were being completely refurbished. Some people who used to work in the building now claim to remember seeing workmen on the ninth floor hammering on some of the load-bearing columns. But memory can be tricky.

Another guesstimate was a structural defect in the tallest building, which collapsed first and dragged down the other two. Although the 70 year old building had seemed strong, pictures from an earlier epoch show that the top four or five floors, originally set back from the front, had been extended frontwards. Could it be that the weight from those extensions was eventually the cause?

The head-scratching continues apace. Engineers vie with architects and building contractors to propound the most reasonable cause, but there’s precious little evidence to go by. The one thing everybody agrees on is that the refurbishing work (“obras”) on the third and ninth floors had not had any prior authorization from the city authorities, nor from CREA, the quasi-governmental certifying institution for engineers and their work. In the mind of the populace, no permit equals guilt.

The owners of these floors deny everything, in the style so common to those trying to squirm out from under liability. First they say there was no “obra”, just internal redecorating. Next, they say it was an “obra” but they had permits, or at least had applied for the permits. Next they say their civil engineer said going ahead with the “obra” was okay, as did the “síndico” of the building. These latter worthies, of course, deny saying any such thing, lest they be slapped in irons.

Why are those of us who live in Rio not surprised? Because we know that owners of floors are pretty much free to do whatever they want with them, unless it affects the other floors. So people regularly add extra floors on top of buildings, stretch out the backs and fronts, creating more weight, all without bothering to obtain any official permit. Everyone else in the building, including the síndico, just turns a blind eye.

But perhaps it really was a structural failure, caused gradually by the excess weight added over the years. No one knows, because no one ever inspects the structural safety of buildings in Rio. Elevators, fire prevention equipment, sanitation and working conditions are all inspected–but nobody inspects the structure itself.

That is a lapse that led to a collapse.

Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)


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