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World

Dozens Of Firefighters Killed In Tehran Building Collapse

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Tehran today, a massive fire at a high-rise led to a building collapse. The video footage is disturbing and shocking as the facade crumbles and then the building appears to implode, a tumbling brown cloud of dust and smoke. Iranian state media reported that dozens of firefighters were injured. More are feared dead or trapped inside. They had been battling flames from the fire for hours before the collapse.

Joining us on the line from the Iranian capital Tehran is Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times. Thomas, this is a high-rise in the middle of Tehran. What do you know about how the fire started?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, in all honesty, almost nothing. And I'm not the only one. Nobody knows why the fire started in Plasco building right in the center of Tehran. Fifty-four-year-old building impounded after Islamic revolution and now home to Iran's garment industry, if you will. There are around 590 units in that building where shop owners sell garments, where garments are stockpiled and where they have offices. So what went wrong and why the fire started is unclear. But that things got really out of hand, that's obvious.

SIEGEL: This building - 17 stories, it was - was built in the 1960s. In the photos, you can see that there are window air conditioner units. It suggests not the kind of building where we would assume there would be, say, a sprinkler system throughout it, I would think.

ERDBRINK: No. Iran became a modernized country over the past 30, 37 years, but building regulations, unfortunately, are not really checked very intensively by the local governments. Now, sprinkler systems, as you would expect those in the United States or in Europe, are often not present here, not even in newly built buildings. And municipality civil servants who would normally check such regulations can often be bribed or tend to look the other way.

SIEGEL: There have been reports of at least 20 firefighters killed in this fire or in the building collapse. Has anyone expressed any hope that some might still be alive, buried inside the rubble?

ERDBRINK: Well, the reports have been very diffused. Iran's health minister said that three people were brought out from under the rubble alive. But there's also reports out there by semi-official local media that there might be up to 300 people buried under the rubble. Of course, this is a huge embarrassment for Iran's Islamic government that likes to portray their country as a regional paradise where, unlike other regional countries, there's no war or there are no terror attacks. Iran is a calm country, they say.

But an accident like this in the center of Tehran involving a building that is an icon for many Iranians collapsing in this manner, that is a big embarrassment for them. And the whole handling of the issue today is also being criticized in the Iranian media with security forces arriving way after the building originally collapsed, thousands of people gathering around the site, some people taking selfies. So all in all, it was not only an embarrassment but also a very tense day for Iranian authorities.

SIEGEL: Well, Thomas Erdbrink brink of The New York Times in Tehran, thanks for talking with us today.

ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.