Sao Paulo (AFP) – Two workers were killed Wednesday when a crane collapsed at a stadium set to host next year’s World Cup opener, raising fresh doubts about Brazil’s ability to finish work for the tournament on schedule.
Andres Sanchez, operations director at the Arena Corinthians site, said the workers, aged 44 and 42, were crushed to death when a crane hoisting a 500-ton metallic piece to the top of the roof collapsed.
He said the cause of the accident was not yet known but was under investigation.
He insisted that the overall structure was not affected.
The accident came amid a scramble to meet a December 31 set by football’s governing body FIFA to complete work at the venue.
A third worker was rushed to hospital with injuries after the accident, which brought a shocked response from FIFA president Sepp Blatter and condolences from the Brazilian ministry of sport.
“I’m deeply saddened by the tragic death of workers @Corinthians arena today,” Blatter said on Twitter. “Our heartfealt condolences are with the families.”
Work on the site has been suspended for three days of mourning until next Monday, after which 30 percent of the site will be closed to assist the investigation.
Jair Paca de Lima, the civil defense coordinator, said the accident might have been caused by “an error in the operation of the crane or by the weight of the structure which was being lifted.”
But construction giant Odebrecht, which is in charge of the project, said the crane was operated properly.
“The crane is capable of lifting three times the weight” of the structure, said Frederico Barbosa, the operations manager at the site.
FIFA, which has faced recent scrutiny over worker conditions at under-construction venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, later said safety standards for workers were “a top priority.”
Arena Corinthians is one of 12 World Cup venues planned for the tournament, for which Brazil has been struggling to overhaul its creaking infrastructure.
In addition to the opening of the Cup, the stadium will host five other games, including the semi-final, while the final will be played in Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium next July 13.
The reported $11 billion cost of staging the event has aroused public protests.
One site worker, Jose Mario da Silva, 48, told the G1 news portal the accident happened as most workers were having a lunch break.
“I had walked underneath this structure to go and have lunch. If it had happened at a different moment, many more people could have died — I could have died myself.”
Da Silva added that the accident occurred as “a crane was lifting the last and heaviest piece of the stadium roof.”
FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke also expressed his shock and sadness in a tweet.
“Extremely shocked by the news from Sao Paulo,” Valcke said. “Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this accident. We are currently awaiting further details from the authorities, who are investigating this tragic accident.”
“The safety of workers is the top priority for FIFA, the LOC (the Cup’s Local Organizing Committee) and the federal government,” FIFA said in a statement. “We know the safety of all workers has always been paramount for all the construction companies contracted to build the 12 FIFA World Cup stadiums.”
FIFA set a strict December 31 deadline for completing all 12 host venues amid fears Brazil will struggle to be totally ready.
Earlier this month, Odebrecht said the Corinthians arena was 94 percent complete, with the roof’s steel structure already mounted and the pitch laid.
About 1,500 employees are currently working around the clock to ensure the 68,000-seat stadium is finished on time.
Wednesday’s accident is not the first to hit preparations.
Work was temporarily suspended in the southern city of Curitiba after a labor court ruled that there were various safety breaches and a “serious risk of workers being buried, run over and of collision,” as well as being hit by construction material.
In June 2012, a constuction worker was killed in a fall at the new stadium in Brasilia and, last March, another worker fell to his death at the Amazonia Arena in Manaus.
A safety engineer at the World Cup stadium where a giant crane collapse killed two workers allegedly warned his supervisor of possible problems with the operation, only to have his concerns brushed aside, a labor union leader charged Thursday, as sniping over the accident heated up.
The incident has fed worries about Brazil’s capacity to host next year’s showcase tournament, as well as the 2016 Olympics, though authorities insist they will be ready for both.
Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians was slated to be completed by the end of December, and workers have suggested that speed was a top priority on the construction site, with many working 12-hour shifts and skipping vacations.
The stadium was initially scheduled to be part of the Confederations Cup earlier this year, but world football’s governing body FIFA scrapped the venue from the warm-up tournament because of financing problems before construction even started.
Antonio de Sousa Ramalho, president of Sao Paulo’s civil industry workers’ association, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that supervisors pressed ahead with the operation to finish the roof despite several rainy days that soaked the soil. He said the engineer warned his supervisor that it appeared the ground was not stable enough to support the 500-ton piece of roofing.
”To his surprise, he was told by the supervisor that nothing was wrong and work should continue,” said Ramalho, who declined to provide the worker’s name for fear of possible reprisals. ”They discussed the matter for a while but in the end the supervisor’s decision stood.”
Odebrecht, the powerful Brazilian construction company behind the stadium project and three other World Cup venues, strongly denied the claims, and a civil defense official said an initial inspection of the construction site a day after the accident showed no evidence the ground was unstable.
”Odebrecht and Sport Club Corinthians clarify that there was no warning previous to the accident,” the statement said. The company added that Ramalho’s union does not represent most of the workers involved in the crane operation.
Following a visit to the site Thursday, the civil defense official in charge of the inspection said there were no obvious signs that the ground was unstable.
”When we looked at it, it didn’t seem like the ground shifted, maybe just a few millimeters,” Jair Paca de Lima said in a television interview. ”Maybe after an analysis with the equipment we will know more.”
According to Brazilian media reports, investigators are also looking into human or mechanical error as possible reasons for the collapse.
Lima said only the area where the accident happened will remain closed, but work can resume at most of the stadium as soon as Monday, when a three-day mourning period ends. Constructors will be allowed to clear the crane and the metal structure after getting clearance from civil defense authorities, which is expected to happen soon.
The labor ministry later Thursday said constructors were prohibited from using the other nine cranes at the site until they can show ”safety measures are in place and there is no more risk of accidents.”
Ramalho, the union leader, said workers had been pulling long hours for quite some time in an effort to get the stadium completed on time, a point confirmed Thursday by loader Sergio Almeida, who told the AP typical shifts were 12 to 13 hours long.
Besides the Sao Paulo stadium, Odebrecht was involved in construction of the Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador and the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, both of which were delivered for this year’s Confederations Cup. It also renovated Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium, which will host the World Cup final.
A small part of the roof at Arena Fonte Nova collapsed in May from weight of accumulated water from heavy rainstorm. At the time, officials denied any structural problems with the project and blamed a mistake by a worker who inspected the roof.
FIFA said earlier Thursday it was waiting to learn more about the extent of the damage from Wednesday’s accident. FIFA officials and other global soccer personalities are due in Brazil next week for the high-profile World Cup draw in the resort city of Costa do Sauipe.
FIFA leaders have said repeatedly that there is no Plan B for next year’s tournament – particularly since nearly 1 million tickets to the matches have already been sold.
”It is too premature to make any detailed assessment on the situation of the Corinthians Arena as we are still awaiting the technical report to be able to evaluate the scale of the damage,” FIFA said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. ”We will be able to provide an update earliest next week following the FIFA Organizing Committee of the FIFA World Cup.”
Jose Maria Marin, the president of the local World Cup organizing committee, said he lamented the accident but was confident it would not significantly affect the opener in Sao Paulo on June 12.
”I’m certain that the stadium will be ready for the start of the World Cup,” he told Brazilian media.