Seven Swiss Firefighters Die in Collapsed Parking Garage

GRETZENBACH, Switzerland (AP) -- Seven Swiss firefighters were killed in the collapse of a parking garage ceiling in a fire in northern Switzerland, officials said Sunday.

The bodies of the remaining two missing firefighters were recovered during the night by rescuers in a search that lasted nearly 17 hours, said a spokesman for the Solothurn cantonal (state) police. The other five were recovered during the day Saturday.

Investigations continued Sunday into the cause of the fire, which broke out at 6:07 a.m. (0507 GMT) Saturday. Police spokesman Frank Wilhelm said initial indications were that the fire started in a car parked in the garage, which was part of an apartment complex in Gretzenbach, a village about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Zurich.

The missing firefighters were among 11 who entered the garage shortly before the roof collapsed at daybreak, Wilhelm said.

Three of the firefighters were able to free themselves. A fourth was rescued and hospitalized with multiple fractures, said Paul Haus, chief of the Fire Department from nearby Schoenewerd, which took part in the rescue operation.

The garage was under a playground lined with trees and park benches. The collapse left a crater three meters (10 feet) deep and 30 meters (yards) across. The apartments were initially evacuated but the residents were allowed to return later in the day.

Rescuers were slowed because they had to use heavy equipment to remove soil and grass that had been on top of the concrete roof. Only then could they tackle the tightly compacted rubble beneath.

First Report - Saturday, Nov. 27

GRETZENBACH, Switzerland (AP) -- The concrete ceiling of a parking garage collapsed in a fire in northern Switzerland on Saturday, trapping seven firefighters inside, officials said.

After 10 hours of searching five of the firefighters' bodies were recovered by nightfall, and rescuers continued to search for the remaining two amid thick smoke still coming out of the rubble, said Paul Haus, chief of the Schoenewerd Fire Department, which took part in the operation.

``As long as we are uncertain that they are dead, we won't give up hope that they will survive,'' Haus said.

But Frank Wilhelm, spokesman for the Solothurn cantonal (state) police, conceded, ``Hope is diminishing every minute. The situation is very grave.''

The missing firefighters were part of a group of 11 who entered the garage at an apartment complex in Gretzenbach shortly before the roof collapsed at daybreak, Wilhelm said.

Three of the firefighters were able to free themselves and a fourth was rescued and hospitalized for smoke inhalation, said Joerg Gabi, chief of the police unit at the scene.

Rescuers initially had radio contact with the trapped firefighters, but that was lost, Wilhelm said.

The garage was under a playground lined with trees and park benches at an apartment complex. The collapse left a crater three meters (10 feet) deep and 30 meters (yards) across.

Rescuers were slowed because they had to use heavy equipment to remove soil and grass that had been on top of the concrete roof. Only then could they tackle the tightly compacted rubble beneath.

Alexandra Kuhn said she and the 100 residents of the apartments were awakened at 6:30 a.m. (0530 GMT) and told to leave the building.

``We couldn't take anything with us,'' Kuhn said.

The stairs leading out of the building were full of smoke because the buildings were connected to the garage, she said.

The residents were allowed to return to their apartments by midafternoon after experts determined that there was no danger they, too, would collapse, Kuhn said.

Wilhelm said the fire was believed to have started in a car parked in the garage. He said he didn't know if there were any structural faults that led to the collapse.

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