MUMBAI (Reuters) – Indian police on Wednesday arrested the owner of several apartments in a four-storey building that collapsed in Mumbai, killing 17 people, an official said, adding the cause of the disaster was probably unauthorised renovation.
Sunil Shitap, whose wife contested municipal elections this year for the Shiv Sena regional political party, was charged with culpable homicide, the official said.
The death toll from the collapse on Tuesday of the 40-year-old building in the eastern suburbs of India’s financial hub more than doubled overnight to 17 as rescuers removed debris, a fire official said.
The building housed a nursing home on the ground floor and three to four families on each of the other floors.
Media reported that Shitap owned all the building’s ground-floor apartments and had converted them into a nursing home. He had been conducting renovations at the building before the collapse. Shitap could not immediately be reached for comment.
Samruddhi Mayekar, a resident in the neighbourhood, said she heard construction workers rush out of the building shouting to residents on floors above to flee, as the building was about to collapse. Neighbours said the building seemed to slide at an angle before the crash.
Mayekar said she tried to warn residents, too, but the building fell “in less than 10 seconds”.
Residents in nearby buildings rushed to move the debris immediately. Before first responders arrived, six people had been removed. Many of the victims were found in a stairwell, where they were trapped as they tried to flee, said two volunteers at the site.
A man living on the third floor emerged from the rubble and began to look for his baby, while a young girl coated in dust extracted herself and walked away, witnesses said.
Locals organised vehicles to carry the injured to nearby hospitals before firemen arrived.
On Tuesday, the Maharashtra state chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, visited the site and said action would be taken against those responsible for the tragedy.
“The building wasn’t on the list of dilapidated buildings,” Mumbai Mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar told reporters on Tuesday. “We will investigate whether the building fell because of an alteration in the structure.”
“There had been a lot of hammering going on over the last few days,” Mayekar said. “There was nothing left on the ground floor. It looked like a big open hall, with all the main pillars gone, so that definitely would have weakened the building.”
One police official said Shitap had replaced some building pillars with metal support rods, which had been found and would be used as evidence in the case.
Binita Ramchandani, whose family lived on the fourth floor, said her mother was at home when the incident occurred. She was later rescued.
“The renovation work had been going on for quite some time now,” Ramchandani said. “Several people had approached Shitap to ask him to stop the work. My father, too, had gone to Shitap and was told, ‘I have contacts right at the top’.”
“We hope we get justice,” she said. “This is clearly murder.”
Editing by Nick Macfie, Larry King