A desperate search was underway Friday for around 20 firefighters trapped for 24 hours under the rubble of a Tehran high-rise that collapsed following a fire.
Hopes were fading for the men who were still inside the 15-storey Plasco building when it came down on Thursday.
Rescue workers, soldiers and sniffer dogs worked through the night, cutting through steel girders and digging tunnels under the wreckage, but no survivors or bodies had yet been found.
One firefighter, who managed to escape the building before it collapsed, died in hospital on Friday from severe burns, the official IRNA news agency reported.
The Plasco building was Iran’s oldest high-rise and contained a shopping centre and hundreds of clothing suppliers.
Each layer of wreckage removed from the scene was unleashing fresh smoke, causing problems for workers and sniffer dogs.
“The removal of debris is more difficult than removing debris from a major earthquake because we are dealing with fire, smoke and lack of oxygen,” said Red Crescent official Morteza Moradipour.
“It is still not clear how many people are trapped under the rubble and not even one person has been pulled out,” added Tehran emergency services director Pir Hossein Koolivand.
Iranians were in shock over the apparent loss of so many firefighters, with state television placing a black banner across the corner of the screen as a sign of mourning.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said late Thursday that the incident had “caused deep sorrow, regret and concern for me,” and praised the “bravery and sacrifice of the firefighters.”
IRNA said 84 people were injured in the initial fire, of whom five were still in hospital.
The head of Iran’s chamber of commerce, Ali Fazeli, said an initial estimate of 15,000 billion rials (roughly $500 million) had been put on the financial damage.
“Unfortunately, a considerable number of shops in this building were not insured,” he added.
The clothing suppliers were particularly full of stock in the run-up to Nowruz, the Iranian new year, which falls in March.
Tehran police chief Ghader Karimi said rescue workers were pulling safes and other items out of the debris, and these were being kept in a special store at the site to return to owners.
President Hassan Rouhani has called for an immediate investigation, with city officials saying the building’s managers ignored repeated warnings about fire hazards.
The Plasco building was Tehran’s first shopping centre and Iran’s tallest building when it was finished in 1962, before being dwarfed by the construction boom of later years.
It was built by Habibollah Elghanian, a prominent Iranian-Jewish businessman who was arrested for alleged ties to Israel and sentenced to death and executed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.