50 firefighters killed in Iran as burning high-rise collapses

A historic high-rise in the heart of Tehran caught fire and collapsed Thursday in a giant cloud of smoke, killing dozens of firefighters who were battling the blaze, Iranian news media reported.

At least 50 firefighters were killed in the collapse of the 17-story Plasco Building, a symbol of modernity that was constructed in the early 1960s, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said.

Local news media quoted emergency operations officials as saying at least 70 people were believed trapped under the wreckage. More than two dozen had been hospitalized.

Rescue dogs were helping the hunt for survivors as police cordoned off several blocks in an area populated with embassies just north of the capital’s main bazaar.

President Hassan Rouhani issued a statement asking the Interior Ministry to investigate the cause of the fire, which broke out on the top floors shortly after 8 a.m. while garment merchants were doing business and tour guides were leading visitors through the building.

Videos on television and social media captured the shock of Iranians at the scene, some bursting into tears, others holding their heads.

“This landmark of modernity is gone,” said Siavash Ramesh, a tour guide who was working in the building Thursday morning.

The building was a familiar and beloved part of the low-slung capital’s scattered skyline, erected during a decade of rapid economic growth under Iran’s former monarchy and attached to a large shopping mall.

A rectangular block that seemed drab by today’s standards, it was for a generation of Iranians the tallest and most magnificent high-rise in the country.

It also stood out for its builder: a Jewish plastics tycoon, Habib Elghanian, who was executed in the months after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran’s ruling mullahs accused Elghanian, the head of a prominent association of Jewish Iranians, of spying for Israel, and that triggered an exodus of Jews from the country.

For some Iranians, the building’s collapse was akin to losing a family member.

“Our landmark monument is gone, right before our eyes,” said Nasrin Sadvand, a Tehran resident who was near the site.

Others saw deeper meaning in the building’s collapse. Ramesh, the tour guide, recalled the story of how a political activist who opposed the ruling theocracy was allegedly dropped from the top of the building by security agents for refusing to disclose sensitive information. 

“The building took revenge from the people who misused it,” Ramesh said.

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India

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UPDATES:

3:55 a.m.: Updated with Times reporting and a death toll of 50 firefighters.

2:35 a.m.: Updated with 75 injured.

1:35 a.m.: Updated with state-run media reporting 30 deaths.

12:55 a.m.: Updated with details and background on the tower.

This article was first published at 12:40 a.m.

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