Alex catastrophe: The Wakeup call!

This is a refined version of my article; Awake: the collapse of buildings and morals, it was published in Campus magazine March 2008 issue. To view the older article click here

dedicated to Roba Salah Ayoub, may God bless her & rest her soul

“We wish you a merry Christmas,

We wish you a merry Christmas,

& Happy new year…”

The jingle goes. Unfortunately that was not the case in Alexandria…

One day before Christmas, & right after Adha eid, on Monday the 24th of December morning; Alexandria woke up to another horror, to maintain the series of tragedies the city have been plagued with during the recent years.

The Lauran residential building collapse claimed 35 innocent lives (including 2 complete families) & took both the city and the nation by surprise. Amongst whom is “Roba Salah Ayoub” may God rest her soul & also 4 other members of her family.

I came to know her during my study in Arab Academy, Alex. and the least I can say about her is that she was a young and vibrant character, with a kind heart & a bright future awaiting her; fate has it that she was one of the many victims of this tragic collapse. And this touched me deeper than I imagined such thing would, as I’m sure it did to all those who knew her.

On Sunday the 30th the authorities announced the end of search and rescue operations, and left the city celebrating the New Year by burying it’s loved ones. Only 3 survived the disaster, all were pulled out of the rubble during first 48 following the collapse.

The apartment block, which was originally built as a seven-storey structure, was built without a license, in 1982. The owner later obtained a permit, and then added an illegal extra five floors.

On site witnesses have recounted that the rescue operations were well coordinated, and surprisingly humane. Except for a territorial feud that occurred on the first day between the army and the National Guard forces on-site, everything went smoothly, and everybody did the best they can.

Up till here the news is pretty normal (if we consider a building collapse a normal occurrence), buildings fall everywhere right?

It’s a painful tragedy by all standards, true, but yet it’s not as tragic as a ferry sinking, and taking 1,000 passengers down with it, one might say. So normally this feature should end here, and with a little prayer for the victims of the Louran Building, I should conclude this article.

Unfortunately this is not the case, buildings fall everywhere, that’s right, but not as regularly as they do in Egypt.

During the last 8 years only, (starting with the turn of the century) we had about 20 building collapses in various areas of Egypt, 5 of which was during the last two years. (Almost as frequent as, say, rock concerts?!)

At least 3 people were killed in May 2007 in the poor Cairene district of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, when an old building collapsed as workers were restoring it.

In October 2006, safety violations were the cause of numerous building collapses. In November of the same year, seven people died following the collapse of a four-storey building in Mansoura.

A year earlier 16 people, including 2 children, were killed and 17 injured when a six-storey building collapsed in Alexandria.

An eleven storey building fell like a house of cards in the eastern Cairene suburb of Nasr City on 26 January 2004 claiming the lives of 16 people, following a fire outbreak at an appliance store in the ground floor.

Within one week in late Feb.- early march 2002, Egypt was plagued by the collapse of four buildings, in various provinces claiming the lives of at least 50 people.

And sadly the list goes on.

Not to mention that the smaller scale collapses have become a daily norm. Actually, and on the same week of the Louran tragedy, 2 other “low profile” collapses happened in Alexandria, one was a villa, and resulted in the death of two construction workers, and the other was a staircase of yet another unlicensed building and resulted in multiple injuries and one fatality.

What’s the story there? Are we intentionally building our houses that delicate? Or are our construction methods as feeble as our economy?

And to think that Egypt is one of the countries that isn’t in any earthquake hot-zones, it’ scary to think what if we had earthquakes as frequent as say east Asia (the words 1992 earthquake sends any shivers down your back?).

Just after the 1992 earthquake that killed 500 people in Cairo alone, Al-Ahram newspaper quoted officials saying that 40% of the buildings in the capital are endangered.

The legal laws against illegal construction were ramified & penalties were increased in 1996 shortly after the horrific collapse of a residential tower in Heliopolis, Cairo, in which 64 people died.

Governmental statistics after the collapse revealed that there are some 7,000 endangered buildings that should be evacuated and another 12,000 that are in breach of construction regulations and are deemed unsafe, that’s in Alexandria alone. (And that’s an extract from “Adel Labib” the Alexandria governor’s statement)

Adel Labib also stated that all the efforts to demolish such buildings have been met with fierce opposition from residents and owners as well as investors in Alexandria’s real estate market. He affirmed that the residents refuse to leave although the governorate would provide them with alternative housing.

Now why would anybody, do that? Why would anyone know that his/her house may collapse at any minute and yet continue living in it? Does that make any sense to you? Because it sure doesn’t make any sense to me! Have we become that reluctant as a nation, that we wouldn’t take action even if our lives depend on it?

All of these troubling facts, lead me to investigate the Louran collapse a little bit further, trying to unveil who is to be blamed for this incident as well as the others.

In the aftermath of the disaster (and as usual) the local authorities, seemed to forget all about the license, & they were quick to announce that they had ordered the removal of the top two floors (only!) because they contravened building laws issued in 1995, furthermore they claimed that the owner, Mrs. Hanem Mostafa Erian, refused to implement the order.

But a quick look into the history of the building will reveal a lot more inconsistencies and unsettling facts. The building was built in 1982, without license as mentioned before, however, in an odd & questionable decision the district has agreed to provide the building with the electricity & water infrastructure on 9/1/1982! Then to continue the sequence of contradictions, the tear down & removal warrant no. 124 was issued in the same year! And the warrant was put in effect starting 11/8/1983, however the residents refused to leave the building and the whole dispute was raised to court. 10 years later, the Administrative court repudiated the residents claim, & reconsolidated the demolition order to make it final and put it in immediate effect, starting 1993. Three years passed without executing the order, and on 1996 comes the emergency law no.6 to save the day, and stop all demolition orders in effect nationwide!!!

Yet amidst all these conflicting facts the building owner’s lawyer, maintains that owner was seeking the help of the district to help her implementing one of the restoration warrants, specifically no. 253 for the year 1999, he goes on to state that the district gave no respond to the owners’ call out, but the district office denied any such thing happening.

The prosecutor office requested the complete documentation of the building including infrastructure permits, legal warrants and licenses, alongside the blueprints and architectural consultancy documents from the district office, only to find that such documents are lost, or even worse, didn’t exist in the first place. The officials also order the arrest of a number of related people following the collapse, including the building owner, local council officials and two contractors whom have been responsible for the recent restoration works in the building.

Of course, the ongoing series of conflicting facts makes it very hard at this point to tell the outcome of the official investigation, however, the owner’s statement is of key importance in the case, only she resides in Kuwait from even before the collapse, and now that she is brought into question, nobody seems to know her whereabouts.

Although her lawyer asserts that she is not to blame, and that she was trying to implement the numerous removal & restoration warrants, against the residents’ continuous resistance, an old resident of the building and a friend of one of victims announced in “Akhbar Al Youm” on the 29th of December, that her late friend, Mona Al Bahr told her one day prior to the collapse, that the owner have commenced the restoration works in the ground floor, and that the workers removed 3 columns! She quotes her late friend in saying; “She is going to kill us all”.

We don’t want to go pointing fingers at anyone. But there is still the question of why was the building built without a license, and the even more disturbing question is, if she did in fact know that the building was endangered and was trying to evacuate it, why is her son among the victims of the collapse?

However, guilty or not, I’m sure that the investigation will be concluded (within 2-6 year max); someone will go to prison for a short time, a small fine will be paid & as usual the whole issue will be forgotten, that is until the next building collapses.

Of course things doesn’t have to go this way… we can consider this last collapse (and the ones before it) a wakeup call (or rather a series of missed calls), and we can for once, do something about it.

But what is it that we can do?

Well, for starters, we can at least follow the investigation, and try as much as possible to ensure that the person or persons responsible gets it this time, by exposing any shady procedures during either the investigation or the trail.

We also need to raise awareness of the problem, especially among informal areas of our cities, where unlicensed structures are more likely to be built (at least statistically!). Come to think about it, that’s not true, I suggest we raise awareness everywhere, because obviously it’s not that matter of poor district or not.

Maybe even give out a handbook that tells the users how to recognize simple building flaws and defects, with a hotline that they should call if they think their building is not safe.

Meanwhile, the parliament should discuss elevating the legal laws against illegal construction were ramified & heighten the penalties, as the current 1 year imprisonment and 10 thousand EGP fine is literally a joke.

Already some positive steps are being taken; a high-level committee had been formed consisting of construction experts and engineers to uncover the reasons behind the Louran collapse.

Meanwhile, The Housing Committee of the People’s Assembly insisted that recommendations should be aimed at reducing the likelihood of building collapses in Egypt (it’s about time someone made those recommendations!). The much anticipated “recommendations”, included the appointment of consultants to assess the state of buildings for which demolition or restoration orders were issued from 1975 to 1985. The committee also called for forming an ad hoc panel dedicated for providing alternative accommodation for those living in endangered buildings, to facilitate the implementation of demolition or restoration orders. However it falls to us as a nation and media, to ensure that these recommendations be implemented by the government, and that they are not just an aftermath containment procedure.

The governmental districts should also be more involved in the building process, beyond issuing the license. There should be departments specialized in reviewing the blueprints and making sure that the built structure resembles both the license drawings and building regulations & standards.

If it is poses a problematic load to the government, it is possible to involve private sector or to sub contract the revision & verification process altogether, to well known consultancies and trusted architectural experts.

The governments’ function was never actually building the buildings for us; it was always more of a planning & regulating authority. And it should stick to that, and start by tearing down the thousands of buildings that already have effective demolition warrants & deemed unsafe. Because as the cliché goes, those buildings are “time bombs waiting to explode”.

And we just might not remain silent, the next time as we are betrayed out of the safety of our homes.

Read the follow up on this article; Alex catastrophe: I Blame the media

2 thoughts on “Alex catastrophe: The Wakeup call!

  1. Pingback: I blame the media! « Rants on modernism

  2. Pingback: Awake: the collapse of buildings and morals « Rants on modernism

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