Rio high-rises collapse, 19 missing

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Nineteen people were missing early on Thursday after three buildings, one of them 20 stories high, collapsed in downtown Rio de Janeiro, injuring five people, authorities said.

The collapse, apparently caused by structural problems, came as Brazil races to prepare to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, which it hopes will highlight its emerging economic and political prowess.

"Three buildings collapsed: a 20-story building, a 10-story building and a smaller building of three or four floors," Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters on late Wednesday, updating a previous estimate of the damage.

"Giving a total number of victims would be pure speculation," he added.

Early on Thursday, Paes told Globo News television that "19 people who were inside the buildings have not returned home," as rescuers with search dogs continued to sift through the rubble.

Health Secretary Sousa Aguiar said five people had been lightly injured and were at a hospital under observation, adding that the office buildings would have been largely deserted during the night-time collapse.

The incident took place near the municipal theater on the city's Cinelandia square, in a historic district bustling by day but nearly deserted at night.

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion and described scenes reminiscent of September 11, with walls of dust and debris. Paes said the cause of the collapse was not yet known, but that it was likely ‘structural problems.’

Allesandro da Silva Fonseca, who was briefly trapped in an elevator while he tried to escape with four other construction workers, said he almost suffocated from the dust.

"I was out of air. I could not breathe," he said by mobile phone. All five workers later managed to escape, but it was not immediately clear if they were the same victims referred to by health officials.

A mountain of rubble filled the street, and thick dust covered the cars nearby. The tallest building had housed several law offices, and construction work was being carried out on two separate floors.

A bank branch and a restaurant were located on the first floor of one of the collapsed buildings, but it was not immediately clear if the two businesses were open at the time of the incident.

Brazilian authorities are racing to build or renovate 12 stadiums in time for the 2014 World Cup, one of the world's premier sporting events.

Last month football's world ruling body FIFA warned Brazil about delays in the progress of construction projects expected to be ready for the four-yearly football extravaganza.

The Getulio Vargas Foundation and consultancy Ernst & Young have said Brazil needs more than $11 billion in investment to fix roads, boost hotel capacity, reinforce security and develop its telecom network ahead of the Cup.

Brazil hopes the events will showcase its rising power. The Latin American giant surpassed Britain as the world's sixth largest economy last year, but its standard of living lags behind that of the United States and Europe.

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