Third section of Latvian supermarket collapses, halting rescue efforts

Latvia supermarket collapse death toll rises 1:23

A hulking third section of a collapsed supermarket in Latvia that left over 50 people dead fell in Saturday as rescuers were pulling bodies from the rubble and searching for survivors. No one was injured, but officials were forced to suspend rescue efforts in the unstable building.

Meanwhile, Latvia’s President Andris Berzins described the collapse as “murder” on Latvian television.

"This is a case where we need to say clearly it is the murder of an enormous number of defenseless people, and that's how we should proceed," Berzins said.

Fifty-four deaths, including three firemen, have been confirmed as of Saturday afternoon, the Associated Press reported, with police officials saying there were still seven people missing who may have been inside the supermarket at the time it collapsed. 

Scores of shoppers were in the building in the capital Riga on Friday when a huge section of the roof fell in. Firefighters who rushed into the scene were then crushed by a second collapse in the fragile structure.

Latvian police told NBC News they have now opened a criminal investigation into a suspected violation of construction law. No arrests have been made.

"We have three versions [lines of inquiry] and all of them are connected to violation of construction law." police spokesman Toms Sadovskis said.

The Maxima supermarket which collapsed in Riga, Latvia, killing dozens on Friday. Roman Koksarov / AP

He said 35 people were injured, 28 of them hospitalized including several firefighters.

“We will be working through the night and at least until morning,” he said. "As long as there are potentially people inside we will keep going."

With an unknown number of people potentially still trapped inside, fire and rescue service spokeswoman Viktorija Sembele told the Associated Press that the building was like a “house of cards,” and there could be a further collapse if the wrong piece was lifted.

Seven large cranes lifted slabs from the rubble of the store, which is owned by Lithuanian company Maxima and was built in 2011, Reuters said. It lies in the suburb of a grey Soviet-era residential area between the city of Riga and the airport.

Sembele said workers were periodically turning off their equipment and telling relatives to call the missing people so they could pinpoint the ringing phones, the AP reported.

Workers carry a stretcher with a firefighter outside the Maxima supermarket in Riga on Thursday. Roman Koksarov / AP

It is the worst collapse of its kind since Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis announced three days of mourning from Saturday.

Earlier in the day officials said that there were several theories as to why the building collapsed.

Reuters quoted Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis saying on local television: "It is clear that there has been a problem with fulfillment of construction requirements."

Pictures from residential buildings overlooking the structure showed building materials stacked on the roof, where workers were building a rooftop garden.

Maxima officials told the AP that they would release a statement later.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.